LinuxWorld: Reactions mixed to IBM vow of no patent warfare on Linux

IBM promised not to turn its patents on Linux, but some are skeptical of Big Blue's pledge.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Open source advocates reacted with mixed emotions to IBM's vow yesterday during a LinuxWorld Conference & Expo keynote not to use its patents as weapons against the Linux kernel.

IBM senior vice president of technology and manufacturing Nick Donofrio said Linux and open source software development will spark IT innovation "like no other thing in computing has done." But he warned innovation could be stymied if businesses, the IT industry, educators and government do not create an environment where open source can thrive.

There are a lot of IP violations in people's proprietary source code, but they're hidden.
Donald Becker
CTOPenguin Computing

Most importantly, the Linux community must establish procedures that inhibit future intellectual property infringement claims and act quickly and in concert to resolve any claims made against Linux and open source. It is possible, he said, to create a framework in which open source and proprietary intellectual property can coexist.

IBM will do its part by not asserting its patent portfolio against the Linux kernel, "unless of course we are forced to defend ourselves." This pledge was met with applause from the packed house of LinuxWorld attendees.

Donofrio challenged other vendors to follow IBM's example by making similar statements about enforcing their patents.

Open source luminary Bruce Perens agreed, but first said IBM should solidify its promise because it holds more patents than any other IT vendor and lobbies for more software patent protections, Perens said. "IBM has multiple personalities," he added.

"I'd like a signed document to that effect because management changes," Perens said. "I want them to tell their customers that they are safe and their developers are safe."

Perens would also like the major vendors -- such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard -- to offer financial support to open source developers facing patent infringement suits filed by vendors with deep pockets. If they don't act as "knights in shining armor," developers will not have the wherewithal to withstand these attacks. Already, he said, several open source developers have had to sign over their software to patent holders who had the money to win suits, even though those patent holders' cases weren't strong. "People are suing to restrain open source development," he said.

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Bill Weinberg, open source architecture specialist for the Open Source Development Labs of Beaverton, Ore., said IBM has a good reason to keep its vow. "Obviously, IBM will do nothing to endanger Linux because it's so strategic to their core business," he said.

The media has made too big a deal over the intellectual property disputes over Linux and open source software, Weinberg said. Filing patent infringement lawsuits are business as usual in the proprietary software world and often don't get a lot of media attention. "Because this is a new development in open source, it is making headlines," he said.

"Open source software is more vulnerable to those seeking out IP and patent infringements because it is out there for everyone to see," said Donald Becker, chief technology officer of Penguin Computing of San Francisco. "There are a lot of IP violations in people's proprietary source code, but they're hidden."

Becker agreed with Donofrio's keynote pronouncement that the innovation that will come with an unfettered open source movement will create a thriving U.S. IT economy. Donofrio stated that protectionism and trade barriers will not prevent the flow of jobs to other countries.

"Ninety-one million new jobs will be created in the next decade," Donofrio said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that those jobs will go to countries that foster innovation."

Becker also warned that holding on to a proprietary model would make the U.S. IT market weak.

"In the U.S., there might be the perception that Microsoft is bringing in all this money, and we should ban anything that puts that revenue stream at risk," Becker said. "If we protect our monopolies, we won't just run the risk of falling behind, we will fall behind. We have to be as aggressive as possible about developing new software and new ideas."

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