Novell yesterday pledged to use its patent portfolio to defend against potential intellectual property attacks by others on its open source products. The company is urging other vendors to follow suit.
In July, a study by Open Source Risk Management - a start-up which seeks to sell end-users "insurance" against and advice about patent litigation - identified 283 patents potentially infringed by the Linux kernel, of which 27 are held by Microsoft. Shortly afterwards, one of Europe's most publicised Linux migration plans, in the German city of Munich, was postponed because of patent fears. Proposed European legislation that might see US-style patent laws rolled out across Europe created widespread concerns in the open source community. And that's to say nothing of SCO's ongoing legal disputes with IBM, Novell and Red Hat over its controversial claims that its intellectual property has found its way into Linux without its permission.
Novell's move is designed to reassure potential and existing Novell customers that they won't have to go it alone in contesting open source patent disputes. Said Jack Messman, chairman and CEO of Novell: "Because of its disruptive nature, open source threatens entrenched interests, some of whom are fighting back with vague accusations of intellectual property risks in open source technologies. Novell is taking an active stand in defence of the software we offer – both proprietary and open source – by stating our willingness to use our own patent portfolio to help our customers. We urge other vendors with relevant patents to make the same commitment."
The latter comment is clearly aimed at IBM - which owns more patents than any other single IT company. IBM has promised not to deploy its patent arsenal against the open source community but it hasn't gone as far as Novell in signalling its intention of deploying its patent arsenal against would-be aggressors.
Novell argues that the intellectual property risks associated with open source software are no different than those with proprietary software. Both arenas frequently involve IP disputes and open source is not inherently riskier than proprietary technologies, it says. Legal site Groklaw commends Novell's stance but points out that if there were no software patent laws "none of this would be necessary". ®
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