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The Open Source movement is now at a level of maturity that few would have thought possible even just a couple of years ago. Last week saw the launch of a company, Open Invention Network (OIN), created to acquire patents and then offer them, royalty-free, in order to further promote Linux. Will the creation of this organisation have a significant impact on the adoption of Linux?
Clearly all businesses require funding in order to operate and any with the intention of making intellectual property available without charge has to find alternative sources of income in order to function. OIN attracts its financial support from five commercial vendors that have already invested significant sums of cash, resources and time to the cause of Linux. IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Sony and Philips are supplying the wherewithal to OIN to support its efforts to make patents openly available to collaborators seeking to build applications and other components of the Linux operating system.
OIN will make patents that it owns available, without fee or royalty charges to “any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against others who have signed a license with OIN, for their use or distribution of certain Linux-related software”. Chief executive officer at Open Invention Network, Mr. Jerry Rosenthal, stated “Open Invention Network is not focused on income or profit generation with our patents, but on using them to promote a positive, fertile ecosystem for the Linux operating system and to drive innovation and choice into the marketplace. We intend to spur innovation in IT and across industries by helping software developers focus on what they do best—developing great Linux-related software with greater assurance about intellectual property issues.”
Clearly much will depend on the number and quality of patents made available to OIN. The company already has a number of patent holdings in its portfolio, including a set of business-to-business electronic commerce patents purchased from Commerce One by JGR, a subsidiary of founding partner Novell.
This approach of donating patents to the Open Source community is one that IBM adopted some time ago and which fits neatly into its Systems Agenda wherein “Collaboration” is a key driver. For its part, IBM has announced a pledge of open access to “all needed IBM patents”, to implementers of targeted industry software interoperability standards that compliantly use web services, open document formats and electronic form specifications. Initially IBM will focus on healthcare and education standards—areas where it believes innovation and interoperability are urgently required. Once again IBM makes it clear that anyone wishing to make use of its patents must agree not to assert their intellectual property against other implementations of these industry standards.
Whilst OIN is not driven to make profits, it is clear that the vendors supporting its creation expect to gain some benefits, albeit somewhat indirectly. As IBM stated, the pledging of elements of its intellectual property portfolio can certainly help accelerate the developments, which should result in measurable improvements in the way healthcare and education are delivered around the world. However, the company expects to garner new revenue opportunities for itself and its partners by promoting such a standard based strategy.
For OIN to make a major impact in the short term it needs many organisations to make suitable patents available. It will be fascinating to see how many patents it will manage along with how many new IP donors it can attract. Further, we must watch to see if the Open Source community will readily adopt this original method of working. This move complements, but does not replace, the need for true open standards to develop rapidly—but it may give things a kick start.