In Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz's blog this week,
he compares the software industry to the newspaper industry. Traditional newspapers, he says, publish content produced almost entirely by their employees. However online media companies aggregate and organize content produced by the community. In order to compete, traditional media could sue the new media, claiming patent violations like "text in columns" or "captions on pictures" (if such things were patented). However many old media companies are either acquiring new media properties or embracing community-created content.
The parallels to the software industry are obvious. Traditional software vendors write all their own code, but now they have to compete against open source vendors that use a lot of code written by people outside the company. To compete, they can a) threaten lawsuits and try to delay the process, or b) embrace the new risks and rewards that open source presents.
To illustrate the point, Schwartz talks about how in the late 1990's Sun's biggest competitor became a product (Linux) built by a company that aggregated and organized code from the open source community (Red Hat). Sun was at a cross-roads:
Could we have sued them? Sure. Sun has what I'd argue to be the single most valuable and focused patent portfolio on the web (and yes, we'd use it to defend Red Hat and Ubuntu, both). But suing the open source community would've been tantamount to a newspaper suing the authors of their letters to the editor. We would've been attempting to censor rather than embrace a free press. It might have felt good at the time, but it wouldn't have addressed the broader challenge - community content was becoming more interesting to our customers than our professional content.
While it's unlikely Sun will be joining the Open Invention Network (a shared software patent consortium formed by IBM, NEC, Novell, Philips, Red Hat, and Sony) any time soon, it is heartening to know that they're ready to step up to defend users and distributors of all open source in general, not just their own customers.