Linux distributor Red Hat has posted a statement on its Web site explaining why it both speaks out against software patents and seeks them.
"Software patents generally impede innovation in software development and....are inconsistent with open source/free software," the document begins.
The company also acknowledges that patents can be used as weapons to impede competitors. Red Hat's stated intent in making patent applications of its own is to use them as a defensive weapon against patent abusers. The theory here is that this will help ensure that closed-source freeloaders can be sued.
"A relatively small number of very large companies have amassed large numbers of software patents. We believe such massive software patent portfolios are ripe for misuse because of the questionable nature of many software patents generally and because of the high cost of patent litigation. One defense against such misuse is to develop a corresponding portfolio of software patents for defensive purposes."
And to back that up the company has issued a pledge not to defend its patents against use in open source products. So long as the terms of the GNU General Public License v2.0; IBM Public License v1.0; Common Public License v0.5; Q Public License v1.0; or any Red Hat open source license are followed, you're good to go.
While this is hardly binding in perpetuity, it's a pledge that the company will find very difficult to back away from in future, so for now it looks like a good thing.
As for its effectiveness as a defence against the big carnivores of the computing savannah, we're not quite so sure. It's rather hard to picture a company the size of Red Hat defending patents against infringement by companies the size of Microsoft or Sun and their vast legions of shysters. But we do admire a good bluff. ®