Google, business, and open-source patent protection

Google, business, and open-source patent protection

Summary: Google has just pledged that it won't sue other companies over open-source patents if they don't sue Google first, but this is actually a long established policy. Now if it could only stop the patent wars.

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Google's Open Patent Non-Assertion (OPN) Pledge, in which Google promises "not to sue any user, distributor, or developer of open-source software on specified patents, unless first 'attacked", sounds good. Indeed, it is good. But this is far from the first time that Google has made such a pledge. Indeed, open-source companies have long banded together to protect themselves and their patents from outside attackers.

OIN
Before Google was sharing patents for open source, the Open Invention Network was there. (Image: OIN)

The most important protector of open-source patents is the Open Invention Network (OIN). The OIN was formed in 2005 by IBM, Sony, Philips, Red Hat, and Novell. Google joined the OIN in 2007.

The OIN freely acquires Linux-related patents and then shares them, royalty-free, to any company or organization that agrees not to assert its patents against Linux or its applications. Since then, the OIN has significantly expanded and updated the technologies it covers with its protective network of royalty-free cross-licenses. OIN now also covers patents related to such open-source programs as Kernel Virtual Machine (KVM), Git, OpenJDK, and WebKit.

The OIN is an example of what's called a patent pool or patent commons. They're popular for frenemies so they can work together without friction on intellectual property issues, while still competing in the marketplace. In a business world where companies can waste millions of dollars in patent wars, patent pool arrangements have become increasingly common.

Outside of patent pools, Google is also far from the only company to promise not to use a group of patents against open-source developers. In 2005, IBM pledged the free use of 500 of its patents for the development, distribution, and use of open-source software (PDF Link). Red Hat has made similar promises. And in 2005, Nokia promised not to use its patents against the Linux kernel. Indeed, even Microsoft, when it comes to .NET anyway, has promised not to sue open-source developers.

At the same time, though, patents are still being used by theoretically open-source-friendly companies to try to clobber each other. In the most recent example, Nokia is refusing to license 64 plus patents to Google to cover its open-source VP8 web video codec. This came after Google and MPEG had settled their patent disagreements, which had been keeping VP8 from becoming an internet standard.

So while, in short, I applaud Google for its patent promise, don't think for a moment that we're done with patent wars between major companies or the constant toll on the economy of patent trolls. No, our patent system is still utterly broken. While patent pools; fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms (FRAND) patent policies; and promises to use patents only in defense are all well and good, we're still a long way from having a fair and equitable patent system.

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Topics: Open Source, Google, Legal, Linux, Nokia, Software Development

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61 comments
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  • Do you want to buy a bridge?

    Because I own the Brooklyn Bridge. It's yours for a $1000.
    Talk about one born every minute. Stevie boy you are gullible.
    Google is twice as evil as Microsoft ever was.
    Blogsworth
    • Google is twice as evil as Microsoft ever was?

      How so? Was google convinced in being abusive monopoly twice as many times as MS? Oh wait - MS is the only one that was convicted.

      And since you believe in what you say (i assume) i do have something to sell you: forget about Brooklyn bridge, pedestrian bridges over running body of water are all the rage nowadays (*throws a plank of wood over a creek*) Wanna buy one? :-P
      vgrig
      • Google and MS have been convicted of being monopolists as many times:

        0.

        MS is *not* a convicted monopolist.

        That said, I don't like 'em much. But they are sure as heck better than Google.
        x I'm tc
        • Nope

          MS was merely found by a couple of federal judges to have willfully violated the Sherman Antitrust Act; it has also been found guilty of various antitrust violations in a number of other countries.

          But since MS has never been subject to a criminal prosecution for restraint of trade (only civil lawsuits and administrative actions), "convicted" is not the appropriate term.
          John L. Ries
          • Having contracts canceled isn't due to "restraint of trade"?

            "convicted" is the correct term.

            Criminal prosecution as you describe is for actual humans.

            Corporations are not humans for that reason. But corporations ARE convicted of violations of law.

            And MS has been found guilty in quite a few countries.
            jessepollard
          • Corporations are sometimes prosecuted

            And some jurisdictions even provide for the imprisonment of the responsible officers of corporations convicted of felonies (says me, it should happen more often).
            John L. Ries
          • Well, as long as we're going to pick nits...

            Microsoft has never been convicted of *being* a monopoly, but rather of *abusing* their monopoly position / monopoly power in various illegal and anti-competitive ways.
            bswiss
    • Google and its terrible patent respecting record

      Is well and truly documented here

      www.fosspatents.com
      hubivedder
      • It's documented also

        " After pressure from the free software community, Müller acknowledged that he consults for both Microsoft and Oracle."
        AleMartin
      • Unfortunately for you...

        fosspatents has been wrong every time.
        jessepollard
      • FOSSpatents.org is not credible -- you lose just by quoting him

        Florian Mueller (a.k.a. FOSSpatents.org) -- despite his self-aggrandizement -- is not a credible source. He not only has worked on behalf of (ie. been employed by) interested parties (ie. Microsoft, Oracle) without disclosing the fact. More importantly, he has a truely atrocious "batting average"

        For example, Florian Mueller argued very strenuously and very persistently on the side of SCO's intellectual property claims against Linux in their lawsuit against IBM and other parties. And SCO got thoroughly, epically trounced, because their claims were truly farcical, without a shred of evidence that could withstand basic examination -- and Mueller actually had privileged, access to SCO's "evidence", beforehand, and never changed his position as the case progressed, revealing how utterly baseless SCO's claims were.

        His arguments fantasies against Google are equally ludicrous. (It's worth noting that Oracle is pursuing IP actions against Google -- you can draw your own conclusions).
        bswiss
    • Twice as evil?

      no, but just as evil if you want to put it that way.

      Google contributed massively to the mess by creating Android without regard to any legal issue, such as using other's intellectual property without permission.

      That's why they bought mororola. Defending themselves after the fact.

      In comparing MS to Google, they seem to be equals in tactics.
      Cynical99
      • By that logic

        NO ONE could create anything.

        Android doesn't infringe on anyones valid patents.
        jessepollard
      • What "intellectual property", belonging to whom "?

        "Google contributed massively to the mess by creating Android without regard to any legal issue, such as using other's intellectual property without permission."

        What "intellectual property"? Who are these "others"??

        You sound like another Florian Mueller/FOSSpatents.org patsy.
        bswiss
  • Google, business, & open-source patent protection

    Kudos Google.
    daikon
    • Kudos for What?

      Being a thief?
      Owllll1net
      • Kudos Google

        From Owlnet5.
        daikon
      • For not being a 'Microsoft'

        For supporting open source software rather than trying to kill it.

        And before all of Microsoft's apologists start frothing at the mouth, I am not suggesting everything Google does is open soure or has to be. I am not saying they are always true to their "do no evil" mantra. Even so, they are streets ahead of the likes of Microsoft and Apple.
        BRC-4c5c4
        • They support open source as long as it's in their finacial interest

          And as we have seen, if it doesn't make them money, then they lose interest in it.
          William Farrel
          • And?

            They are a business, right?
            radleym