Google joins open source-patent network

Google's membership of the Open Invention Network will see it agree to cross-license open source-related patents to other members for free

The Open Invention Network, an organisation created to help take the pressure of patent litigation off Linux developers, has added Google to the ranks of its contributors.

The move is a major progression for the Open Invention Network (OIN) — Google is not only one of the world's biggest users of open-source software, but is also the group's first end-user member. The network's other members, including IBM and Red Hat, are all vendors selling products based on open-source software.

In announcing the move, Google noted that the company relies heavily on open source and, particularly, on Linux. "Check a Google engineer's workstation and you'll probably find it's running Linux. Do a search on, and a Linux server will return your results," said Google open-source programs manager Chris DiBona in a Monday entry on the official Google blog. Google prizes Linux for its power and flexibility, DiBona said.

Google's membership of the group means it will, like other OIN members, agree to cross-license open source-related patents to other OIN members free of charge. The idea is that member companies can then freely collaborate on open-source projects with less of a burden in terms of dealing with intellectual property issues.

"For us, today's announcement marks the latest development in a long, fruitful relationship with the open-source community," DiBona said in the post.

He pointed out some of the high-profile ways in which Google has given back to the open-source community, such as the open source-oriented Summer of Code training programme, and funding of external projects, such as the Ubuntu Developer Summit and the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit. Google continues to submit Linux patches and has open sourced over a million lines of code, DiBona said.

The OIN was founded by IBM and others in response to a growing sense that software patents could derail the progress of vital open-source software projects such as Linux and Samba. Ironically, IBM has been heavily involved in attempts to legitimise software patents in the EU.

Google's relationship with the open-source world has not been without its own tensions. In particular, Google — along with other internet companies, such as Yahoo — is exempt from open-source licence provisions that require software modifications to be contributed back to the community.

That's because Google and Yahoo are selling a service, rather than distributing products that use open-source software. As such, they're allowed to keep their modifications private.

Eben Moglen, a Columbia University professor and chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, said in a speech in May that companies such as Google and Yahoo have "ethical and community responsibilities" to contribute their code back to the community, but admitted there were no current plans to build requirements for this into the GPL or other open-source licences.

Moglen said Google "has a bias toward secrecy" and said he discussed the issue with the company in March.

Also in March, Google reached a software-contributor agreement with the Free Software Foundation that has since then allowed Google to increase its contributions to open-source projects, according to DiBona.

Nevertheless, the eyes of the open-source world are on Google, Moglen said in May. "If you want to protect your business model, you must be model citizens of the environment. If you shrink, political pressure will grow to constrain your rights to secure the rights of everyone else," Moglen said. "Upon the behaviour of Google much depends."