Munich’s Linux roll-out halted

The City of Munich has put its Linux plans on hold in response to fears over software patents.

The city has cancelled a call for bids on the Linux migration project, called the LiMux Project, planned for July, according to the city’s CIO, Wihelm Hoegner. Hoegner made the announcement on the LiMux Project mailing list on Tuesday evening.

The city’s decision reflects growing concerns in Europe and the U.S. that software patents could be used to derail open source projects, which depend on freedom from intellectual property licence fees. Such projects also generally don’t have the financial resources or patent arsenals necessary to fend off intellectual property lawsuits.

Software patents currently are not allowed in the E.U., under the European Patent Convention, but many believe a directive currently going through the E.U.’s legislative process could change the situation dramatically. “Patent law: patentability of computer-implemented inventions”, known as the software patents directive, would open the floodgates to U.S.-style software patents, according to critics.

On Friday, Green Party Alderman Jens Muehlhaus, called attention to the situation in two motions calling for the mayor of Munich, the Social Democrat Christian Ude, to analyze how the E.U. software patent directive affects Munich’s Linux project.

Meuhlhaus said a cursory analysis of the city’s proposed Linux client software turned up conflicts with more than 50 European software patents. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII), which coordinates anti-software patents activities in Europe, carried out the analysis for Meuhlhaus.

A company holding one or more of these patents could issue a “cease and desist” order to the Munich government, effectively shutting the city’s computer systems down or forcing the payment of licensing fees, Meuhlhaus said. In response, the city said it would halt the Linux project until it could thoroughly analyze the legal and financial risks.

Munich’s decision underlines the dangers posed by allowing software patents in Europe, according to consultant and developer Florian Mueller, who works with the German Green Party on software patent issues. He said the city of Munich, in its recently-completed feasibility study, had proved that open-source software could compete with proprietary software from companies such as Microsoft, but the introduction of software patents would put this competitiveness in danger.

“Open source software will survive any new legislation. The question is, can it be competitive three years down the line?” Mueller said. “So far most people have ignored the software patent issue, saying ‘it isn’t going to happen to us’. Now they’re starting to see that it is a clear and present danger.”

The decision comes shortly after a study found that a total of 283 registered U.S. software patents, including 27 held by Microsoft Corp., could be used as the basis of patent lawsuits against the Linux kernel. The study was funded by Open Source Risk Management (OSRM), a company that provides insurance against lawsuits related to the use of open source products, and conducted by patent attorney Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and senior counsel to the Free Software Foundation.

Munich’s actions are being closely watched as a bellwether for the fortunes of Linux in the public sector, in Europe and elsewhere. Following the city’s initial strategic decision to migrate to Linux, a year ago, the City of Paris ordered its own investigation into a switch to open source. The city of Bergen in Norway recently decided to consolidate older Windows and Unix servers on Novell Inc.’s Suse Linux Enterprise Server 8. Other recent wins for Linux include the French Ministry of Equipment and Allied Irish Banks.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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