IBM, Red Hat join others in Linux patent venture

Five of the biggest names in technology have funded a new venture called the Open Invention Network that will acquire patents and offer them royalty free to promote the Linux open-source operating system.

The Open Invention Network was formed with undisclosed investments from IBM Corp., Novell Inc., Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, Sony Corp. and Red Hat Inc., and will be headed by Jerry Rosenthal, who was most recently vice president of IBM’s Intellectual Property and Licensing business, according to a statement released by the venture.

When the Open Invention Network acquires patents they will be available to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against the Linux OS or certain Linux-related applications, it said in a statement. Among its initial patent holdings will be a set of business-to-business electronic commerce patents that were purchased from Commerce One by a Novell subsidiary, it said.

The formation of the company is the latest of several similar moves by companies and organizations in the open-source space.

In January this year, IBM opened 500 of its software patents to open-source developers. The move, which represented the largest pledge by any software company until that time, allowed individuals or companies working on open-source software access to the patents with the knowledge that they won’t get sued for patent infringement.

Two weeks later Sun Microsystems Inc. followed by releasing 1,670 patents, many related to its Solaris operating system, to the open source community.

In August, Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) launched its Patent Commons initiative that seeks to collect software licenses and patents pledged to the open-source community in a central repository. The idea behind the effort is to make it easier for developers to access the material and also to persuade patent holders to pledge their intellectual property to developers, the OSDL said at the time.

These different initiatives are being spurred by a shared desire to reduce the threat of patent infringement lawsuits on developers and users of open-source software.

The threat was demonstrated in 2003 when The SCO Group Inc. sued IBM and Red Hat, two of the companies behind the Open Invention Network, claiming patent infringement related to the Linux operating system. In 2004, SCO began demanding that some Linux users pay licensing fees.

However, the patents released to date represent only a small fraction of the estimated 150,000 to 300,000 software patents that have been issued in the U.S.

Some think further lawsuits are inevitable, in part because the patent issuing process has been lax and excessively wide-ranging patents have been granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In February, Mitchell Kapor, a founder of Lotus Development Corp. and a prominent open-source backer, warned that bad patents could lead companies like Microsoft Corp. to launch wide-ranging lawsuits, which he called “patent WMDs,” (weapons of mass destruction) against the open-source industry.

“Their business model no longer holds up in an era where it’s clear that open source is simply an economically superior way to produce software,” he said. “Of course they’re going go unleash the WMDs. Why would they not?”

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