Following the release of our report, ‘The Myth of Open Source License Proliferation’ and during research for it, we heard and sensed a feeling that open source software licenses had evolved to become a generally well-accepted piece of the the enterprise IT and IP market. However, we also heard from numerous vendors, developers and other individuals that the next battlefront is obviously software patents, which are in need of reform, according to many supporters of free and open source software.
This week, we saw some of the software patent skirmishes that are driving and validating this thinking. There was first news that the Open Invention Network, the consortium dedicated to legal and IP defense of Linux, had bought some software patents that related to Linux, which admittedly is not hard to do these days. It turned out the 22 Linux-focused patents were purchased from Allied Security Trust, which had actually purchased them from none other than Microsoft. This might not have meant a whole lot, with OIN proclaiming a victory and Microsoft stating simply that the patents did not hold much value to them. However, the plot thickened as we heard from FOSS defender Eben Moglen, from Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin and from vendor Red Hat, that Microsoft may have been shopping the patents around to would-be patent trolls who would do the dirty work of FUD on their own.
Frankly, it has been my position that the market is determining the fate of Linux in embedded uses, mobile devices, desktops, servers, clusters and clouds, and no vendor or vendor-generated FUD will significantly disrupt that. Still, I recognize the importance of promptly and directly countering FUD. Microsoft is largely sticking to its story that the patents did not represent significant value and were thus put on the block for sale. Although it might not acknowledge it, the company is actually correct in that asserted patents or IP that relate in any way to Linux or other open source technologies are of little value, since asserting them invokes the full and forceful response of Linux and its defenders, ranging from the likes of Moglen, Zemlin and the OIN to bitter rivals such as Red Hat and IBM.
The patent spat is also juxtaposed against Microsoft’s efforts to participate and improve its profile in open source and among developers with the CodePlex Foundation as covered by Matt, which also marks the departure of Sam Ramji, who has skillfully headed Microsoft’s efforts to change stance and approach on open source and will be sorely missed.
If we were keeping score, I would say Linux and open source have scored a point (acquiring the patents) while Microsoft has lost one (Ramji’s departure). However, I must also point out that in today’s enterprise IT environments and markets, it is very rare to see a case of EITHER open source OR proprietary software and is almost always in a case of BOTH. We have seen attacks on open source, from Microsoft and others, evolve from targeting its core tenets and ideas to attacking open source licensing. As open source and proprietary software continue to interface, interact and integrate, the patent questions, threats and implications seem to be the next battlefield, only this time Linux and open source are far better established and armed while Microsoft is coming to grips with its loss of market control.
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