A no-fly zone to protect Linux from patent trolls

December 8, 2008: 9:26 AM ET

On Tuesday a consortium of technology companies, including IBM (IBM), will launch a new initiative designed to help shield the open-source software community from threats posed by companies or individuals holding dubious software patents and seeking payment for alleged infringements by open-source software products.

The most novel feature of the new program, to be known as Linux Defenders, will be its call to independent open-source software developers all over the world to start submitting their new software inventions to Linux Defenders (Web site due to be operational Tuesday) so that the group's attorneys and engineers can, for no charge, help shape, structure, and document the invention in the form of a "defensive publication."

Linux Defenders will then also see to it that the publication, duly attributing authorship of the invention to the developer who submitted it, is filed on the IP.com Web site, a database used by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and other patent examiners throughout the world when they are trying to determine whether a proposed patent is truly novel, as any patentable invention is supposed to be.

In effect, the defensive-publications initiative mounts a preemptive attack upon those who would try to patent purported software inventions that are not truly novel -- i.e., innovations that are already known and in use, though no one may have ever previously bothered to document them, let alone obtain a patent on them, a process usually requiring the hiring of attorneys as well as payment of significant filing fees.

"The idea is to create a defensive patent shield or no-fly zone around Linux," says Keith Bergelt, the chief executive officer of Open Invention Network, the consortium launching the site. The core members of that group, formed in 2005, are IBM, NEC, Novell (NOVL), Philips, Red Hat (RHT) and Sony.

OIN's Linux Defender program is being co-sponsored by two of the most prominent guardians of the free- and open-source software community, the Linux Foundation in San Francisco and the Software Freedom Law Center in New York. In addition, the site is being hosted and "co-developed" by New York Law School, which has, since June 2007, been sponsoring, in coordination with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, its own well-received, complementary project, known as the Peer to Patent Community Patent Review site. That site solicits assistance from the open-source community to produce evidence that an invention for which a patent is currently being sought was actually already known or in use prior to the patent applicant's filing.

So-called free- and open-source software is software that, by its licensing terms, confers certain "freedoms" upon users that are usually forbidden by conventional proprietary software companies, like Microsoft. These freedoms include the right to see the software's source code, alter it, copy it, and redistribute it. The best known open-source product is Linux, or GNU/Linux, a complete open-source operating system that has become quite popular among Fortune 500 corporations for use on their data-center servers. Patents threaten the whole free-and-open-source eco-system, however, in that none of the key open-source freedoms can be practiced if an outsider can establish that a given piece of software infringes a valid patent he holds.

The Linux Defenders program is largely the brainchild of Bergelt, who took over as Open Invention Network's CEO this past February. The program also reflects a new, more proactive role Bergelt envisions for OIN than the group has played in the past.

Until now, OIN's purpose has been one-dimensional: to acquire a defensive portfolio of strategically crucial patents, which OIN makes available, royalty free, to any company that reciprocally agrees not to assert any of its own patents against the Linux community. (About 50 companies have already entered into such formal agreements with OIN, of which the best known are probably Google (GOOG) and Oracle (ORCL).) The implicit threat is that if any outsider -- a Microsoft, (MSFT) say, which declared publicly in May 2007 that open-source software then violated 235 of its patents -- were to ever bring a patent suit against a player in the Linux community, that outsider would, in turn, risk countersuit by OIN or its member companies asserting infringement of their own patents by the outsider.

While this IP-acquisition program remains a central one for OIN, Bergelt says, OIN will also now seek to "think more creatively" about other ways to protect and foster Linux's development by means of "relationship-building" and "information-sharing," including efforts to explain the importance of open-source and open-platform approaches to the media, patent officials, and competition authorities, among others.

Befitting someone who plans to tackle this ambitious range of goals, Bergelt has a background that is more diverse than that of his intellectual-property lawyer predecessor, Jerry Rosenthal, who, prior to heading OIN, had served as IBM's IP-licensing chief. Though Bergelt is also an IP lawyer, he is, in addition, an entrepreneur and diplomat. Immediately prior to joining OIN, Bergelt was the president and CEO of the intellectual-property focused hedge fund Paradox Capital. Before that, he was a senior advisor to private-equity fund Texas Pacific Group (now TPG); headed the strategic intellectual asset management unit at Motorola; and co-founded the strategic intellectual asset management unit within the electronics and telecommunications group at SRI Consulting in Menlo Park. Earlier still in his career, he spent 12 years as a U.S. foreign service officer, including a posting to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, where he negotiated IP rights agreements with certain Asian countries, including China.

The Linux Defenders program will actually have three components. The first will be a peer-to-patent component that, like New York Law School's existing program, will reach out to the open-source community in search of evidence of "prior art" -- proof of preexisting knowledge or use of certain inventions -- that can be used to challenge applications for patents that have been filed but not yet granted. The goal here is to persuade patent examiners not to grant the patent being sought because the invention is not truly novel.

The second component will be a natural extension of the first, to be known as "Post-Grant Peer to Patent," which will enlist similar community assistance in the search for prior art relevant to patents that have already actually issued. In this case, the goal would be -- assuming such prior art is found -- to initiate an administrative reexamination proceeding before the U.S. PTO to get the patent invalidated. (There have been some earlier post-grant, peer-to-patent efforts -- sometimes referred to as peer-to-issue programs -- by both nonprofits and private companies, but none with the commitment, and on the scale, that OIN envisions, Bergelt says.)

The third component is the defensive-publications initiative. The phenomenon of defensive publication is also not new, Bergelt acknowledges, although it has primarily been used in the past by private companies protecting proprietary business models. Since at least the 1970s, he says, when the filing of an important patent by one company would often spur rivals to respond by seeking inter-related patents designed to restrict the usefulness of the first company's filing, proprietary companies began using defensive publication to beef up and buffer their core patents.

"They'd file one patent," Bergelt explains, "and then the next day they'd file thirty defensive publications that would protect all of the extensions of it they could think of, so the core patent was fenced off by layers of barbed wire, if you will. . . . What I've done is turn that idea on its head a little bit." (Defensive publications are cheaper and easier to prepare than full-fledged patent-applications.)

Although some factions of the free- and open-source community are ideologically opposed to the whole notion of software patents -- most notably and passionately Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation (which is a client of Linux-Defenders co-sponsor Software Freedom Law Center, which, in turn,  supports the End Software Patents organization) -- neither Bergelt nor OIN fall into that camp.

"We're not anti-patent by any stretch of the imagination," says Bergelt. "More patents is fine with me, as long as they're high quality. Quality is the drum we beat."

In fact, Bergelt says, if a developer wants to get an actual patent on his invention, and then put defensive publications around it, Linux Defenders will help him do so -- so long as the developer will ultimately be contributing the patent to the Linux community.

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