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Dropbox joins Linux patent protection hit squad

Cloud and devices front opening against 'Linux tax'

A company launched to defend Linux on PCs and servers is turning its attention to venture-backed cloud startups and mobile.

The Open Invention Network (OIN) has revealed Dropbox is its latest licensee, potentially shielding the cloud document-sharing service from patent attackers.

OIN owns an artillery of patents covering Linux which it makes available to members and licensees on a royalty-free basis.

Licensees are then sheltered from lawsuits by those people might bring over the patents.

Keith Bergelt, OIN chief executive, told The Register: “These are the kinds of companies we are spending more time with – growth companies, strong, venture-backed companies going public or who are in a position where they could go public in the next two to three years."

OIN started in 2005 on the back of rolling litigation from SCO against IBM, Red Hat and SuSE Linux and had focused largely on Linux and the kernel on PCs and servers. Now it’s turning its attention to cloud and devices, convinced these are where patent attackers could strike.

Bergelt reckoned these young companies are “in a great position” to benefit from those in the OIN acting as a community to protect the Linux cloud.

“These guys see it as everything they do rides on Linux,” Bergelt said. “So they see the connection is there - if they can participate in a patent non-aggression [pool] with like-minded companies, it’s their obligation.”

Dropbox is another startup which hopes to go public, and taking out legal cover on Linux will no doubt be seen as a smart move by its investors.

Two major US funds hold a $250m stake in Dropbox with the company seeking an $8bn valuation. Both funds and value would be eroded if Dropbox fell victim to Linux patent suit.

Twitter, which IPO’d earlier this month with a valuation of $24bn, was named as an OIN licensee in 2011.

More than 640 companies have taken out the OIN licence, including Oracle, Google, Canonical, Rackspace and SugarCRM.

You can read the full list of US patents owned by the OIN here.

Protection for Dropbox comes after OIN this summer added a number of cloud-friendly software packages that run on Linux to its list of protected software.

New additions include packages from OpenStack, Python, MongoDB and Ruby, bringing the total number of Linux software packages OIN protects to 2,173.

The packages are expected to become available for royalty-free licence in January.

Bergelt promised another batch of packages for cloud "in the near future".

"Successful young companies that employ a cloud model - they are in a great position to benefit from… the fact we are community protecting cloud," he said.

OIN was founded by IBM, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony at a time when heightened anxiety over patent litigation was beginning tearing apart Linux.

SCO Group had been fighting IBM in a $3bn lawsuit claiming IBM had infringed on the patents it owned in Unix by contributing them to Linux. Red Hat announced it was suing SCO the same year with SCO then turning on Novell in 2004.

At the same time, Microsoft was going about saying Linux violated 270 patents, patents it refused to name. Events came to a head in 2009, when Microsoft said on February 26 it was prosecuting in-car navigation specialist TomTom for alleged violations of patents it used on Linux and FAT. TomTom joined OIN on March 23 and on March 30 Microsoft announced it was settling its action rather than go to court.

Bergelt claimed it was TomTom’s act of joining OIN helped bring Microsoft quickly to settlement at an amount "meaningless in financial terms".

“The TomTom number [Microsoft sought] would have been significant enough that it would have run a risk of bankrupting the company from a cash position at that time,” he said.

Financial terms of the Microsoft’s agreement with TomTom were not revealed, although the cost of fighting such cases can run into tens of billions of dollars.

What was announced was that TomTom had agreed to weaken its products to exclude tools related to a pair of FAT file management patches, while Microsoft got coverage for patents used by TomTom but without paying for them in return.

There has been no other case along the lines of TomTom and FAT, although Microsoft has been tying makers of Android and Chrome devices from Google into licence agreements – with claims that Android and Chrome violate certain undisclosed Windows patents.

Bergelt said the new threat to Linux is no longer limited to Microsoft, with different attackers bringing costly actions that are loading purveyors of the platform down with legal costs and ongoing royalties, making Linux uneconomical.

“It’s less that there’s a specific threat we are concerned about more what we have been doing since really focusing on updating the definition, we are focused on where major projects and definitions are going with Linux.

Devices also look like getting more attention from OIN in the wake of the Rockstar mega-action against Linux and Android device makers.

Rockstar is a consortium of tech giants – Microsoft, Apple, BlackBerry, Ericsson and Sony – which claims that another group of tech giants – Google, Samsung, HTC, Asus, Pantech, Huawei, ZTE and LG – are all violating patents they own: patents they bought at auction from Nortel in 2011.

“The attack is taxing Linux-based platforms so they are [no longer] economical,” Bergelt said.

Bergelt hinted that OIN would now move to protect Linux in mobile, in addition to in-care systems, as a consequence.

“You can expect us to move into [them] in a non-frivolous way," Bergelt said. “You can expect next year we might focus on [Samsung’s] Tizan and Chrome because we don’t have any Chrome packages in there. Maybe even Firefox OS if there’s anything unique in that.” ®

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