OSDL says patent threat to Linux is receding

The Patent Commons has launched, but one activist has hit out at the idea that pledging a few hundred patents will prevent IP warfare

The chief executive of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) has said that the threat facing Linux from software patent-infringement claims has receded.

Speaking as the OSDL launched the Patent Commons — a scheme where technology firms can pledge patents to the open source community — Stuart Cohen said he was confident that patent warfare would not break out over Linux.

Last year, a report from the Open Source Risk Management insurance group claimed that Linux potentially infringed 283 patents. This led to speculation that companies could be deterred from using open source, especially after Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer cited the research.

Cohen, though, believes that Patent Commons goes a long way to addressing these fears, even though the scheme isn't being supported by Microsoft.

"Lots of people who hold a lot of patents have looked at this issue, and nothing's come of it," said Cohen.

When asked if this meant he had no fears about a company claiming that Linux violated some of its patents, Cohen replied that: "what was once a fear has now gone".

However, as the alleged 283 patents were never named, it's impossible to say whether they are all included in Patent Commons.

Patent Commons is backed by several major players, including Sun, Computer Associates, Nokia, Red Hat, Intel and IBM — which has donated 500 patents. The total number of patents in the Commons is "more than 500", although it isn't clear how many patents the other companies have contributed. Intel, while supporting the idea, has yet to contribute any.

Cohen said that developers can use Patent Commons to help avoid legal problems, as they will not be sued if they write code that infringed any of the patents within the Commons.

Several big names are missing from the list of supporters, including HP, Oracle, SAP and NEC, but it is Microsoft's absence that poses the greatest threat.

"There's always been a suspicion that some of them [the alleged infringing patents] were held by Microsoft, so this could be an issue," said Cohen. "But, our customer advisors speak to people, including major customers who run both Windows and Linux, and they say it's not an issue,"

Florian Mueller, a campaigner against software patents, disputes Cohen's claim that Patent Commons will prevent patent warfare.

"I consider pledges basically useless. The misleading effect they have is far worse than the absolutely negligible value they have," said Mueller. He believes that retaliatory arsenals — such as the Open Invention Network — could serve as a deterrent for strategic aggressors and might reduce the risk.

"Legislative change is the only reliable solution and, contrary to what those with a vested interest in software patents say, it's doable in every parliamentary democracy in the world," Mueller added.

Mueller has published an opinion piece on popular tech news blog Slashdot, in which he argues that companies who pledge not to use their patents against Linux are guilty of 'cheap PR plays'.