OSDL considers open-source code repository

The organisation is considering working on an open-source repository with SourceForge which could be used to check for prior art in software patents, but an anti-patent expert argues it will be of limited use
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor on
Open Source Development Labs, which promotes the adoption of the Linux operating system, has revealed potential plans for a repository of open-source code which could be used by the patent industry to reduce the likelihood of unoriginal software being patented.

Stuart Cohen, the chief executive officer of OSDL, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the organisation is considering working on an open-source database which could be used by companies or patent employees to check for prior art -- whether a patent application contains original work, or has already been worked on in the open-source community.

"We are working on things in the legal area, for example, we are looking into developing a repository where people can put software in -- so companies can determine if software has already been developed," said Cohen.

But campaigners against software patents said this would have little impact and does not tackle the essential issue that patents stifle innovation.

Cohen said OSDL hopes to work with SourceForge, a Web site which catalogues thousands of open-source applications, on the project to improve the way individuals can search for software. "There is no easy way to search for specific software nowadays. We are hoping to do this project in collaboration with SourceForge."

Cohen said there are no deadlines as yet for this project. The Open Source Technology Group, which owns SourceForge, was not immediately available for comment.

Cohen said OSDL is not against software patents and is not concerned about the risk of patent war -- the possibility that patent lawsuits could escalate, and drive SMEs and open-source projects out of existence.

"I think there is a place for patents -- for protecting innovation," said Cohen. "I don't think patents will stifle innovation."

Florian Mueller, a software developer and founder of an anti-patent Web site, said OSDL's plan would have a limited impact.

"It would have a minor positive impact, but is far from solving the actual problem." said Mueller.

He said the repository is unlikely to stop large companies from filing for software patents, as they usually have patent attorneys in-house so it requires little time and effort to file a patent, even if there is a possibility that it may be turned down.

It is important that software patents are eliminated altogether, as copyright is a better mechanism to protect innovation, according to Mueller.

"What companies patent is a technical problem not a solution," said Mueller. "After a few days of work drawing up a software architecture you can get a patent, while it would take months of development to create code which you can copyright."

Mueller explained that patents in the software industry are different to those in the pharmaceutical industry, where the patent document for a drug can be given to a chemical company which can then immediately start manufacturing the drug.

"Even if you have a 30-page software patent document describing the architecture, it will still take you months, if not years, to write the code," said Mueller.

Mueller pointed out that IBM, one of the core founders of OSDL, is fervently pro-patent.

"Nobody should be fooled about the fact that IBM is a hard-core pro-patent company. It is pro-patent, it lobbies the European governments for patents, but on the other hand it wants to be on good terms with the open-source community and politicians."

One anti-patent Web site has published information about what it claims is IBM lobbying European governments, which can be found here.

A spokesman for IBM said the company believes in patents as being a model to protect intellectual property, but has a strategy to not apply patents against Linux or open source. The spokesman was unable to comment on IBM lobbying the European governments, although IBM is a member of a European ICT industry association (EICTA), an organisation which is lobbying the EU to relax the law on patents.

The EU is currently considering a change in the EU Software Patents Directive that would allow the widespread patenting of software in Europe. Politicians, companies and software developers have criticised this change.

Last week ZDNet UK reported that the four main political parties in Germany are supporting the fight against European software patents and that UK firms and software developers are venting their anger against software patents on a new Web site that has been set up by the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure.

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