The expanding need to protect innovation in Linux

With each big lawsuit that hits the headlines, so the freedom to innovate is ever more potentially constricted as developers grow nervous.
Written by Keith Bergelt,, Contributor
Commentary - Anyone scanning the technology news will likely be struck by the number of intellectual property deals and lawsuits going on at the moment. From Google and Motorola to the ongoing saga of Nortel and Microsoft, and the recent news around Yahoo suing Facebook, intellectual property is turning out to be a dominating story for the tech space at the start of 2012. While money remains one major reason for this, a more positive aspect is the tremendous growth and increasing importance of Linux and other open source software systems.

A coterie of innovation like that of the open source community, benefits everyone from the vendors to the end user who is consuming ever evolving technology. This cooperation and the sharing of ideas are fundamental to the success of the open source community. However, the revenues at stake lead to continual streams of disputes and negotiations. With each big lawsuit that hits the headlines, so the freedom to innovate is ever more potentially constricted as developers grow nervous.

The scope of the organizations creating and inventing through Linux is continually broadening, such as in the telecommunications space, where the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has brought a new era of mobile technology. At the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, it was clear that Linux was more prolific than ever in the mobile arena. For example, Tizen, backed by Intel, and launched by the Linux Foundation, was a notable presence. Huawei announced at MWC plans to create and commercialize Tizen handsets for a range of markets, while there was also a beta release of the Tizen platform source code. It’s not just in mobile technology where clever uses of Linux are appearing. For example, Norwegian company FXI Technology is preparing to launch the “Cotton Candy”, a Linux based computer the size of a USB stick.

While a good problem to have, as each new player that enters the market brings with them even more diverse thinking and developments, the sheer volume of new breakthroughs inevitably make backers of alternatives to the Linux platform, such as Microsoft and Apple, wary and defensive. With well funded entities like those constantly on the prowl, collaboration and support is needed from those wishing to see Linux innovations thrive. New stories around patent infringement appear at an alarming rate, almost as often as news on new Linux implementations and inventions appear. This will only continue, with companies like Samsung showing an interest in the Tizen platform and HP also closely tied to broad open source and Linux initiatives.

This collaboration and understanding of the need to work together has not been lost on companies. Open Invention Network (OIN), the collaborative enterprise that enables innovation in open source and an increasingly vibrant ecosystem around Linux, has seen its number of corporate licensees grow to over 400 since it was launched in 2005 by IBM, NEC, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony. The organization now counts HTC, Oracle, Cisco, Facebook, and Google among its members. This considerable rise in members of OIN, from both large and small organizations, demonstrates the enormous importance these companies place on the freedom to invent, innovate and operate. This growth is unlikely to slow either.

OIN has recently updated its Linux System definition, the list of software packages that define where the OIN community will cross license and not pursue patent infringement claims against one another. Through the update, the first time this has occurred since 2005, OIN expanded as the list by more than 740 new software packages. New software including KVM, Git, OpenJDK, and WebKit , among many others, will now receive coverage. In addition, OIN improved the coverage of innovations in previously identified software packages by upgrading the list to more current versions of those packages. In total, the size of the Linux System definition will very nearly double.

This will affect thousands great number of patents held by the more than 400 OIN members, offering even more freedom for licensees to operate and innovate. The improved coverage of the OIN license will help to encourage ongoing collaboration and investment from Linux developers, distributors, sellers, resellers and end-users.

As Linux becomes more integrated and prolific in the technology used by people every day, its relevance as a medium for creativity and innovation remains vital. The constant barrage of lawsuits threatens to undermine and strangle the progress that is being made. In other fields, such as the arts or architecture, companies encourage innovation and build from the invention and breakthroughs of others, even competitors. Open Source and in particular Linux can and is allowing this type of collaboration, where companies work together to make important advances. This is why the work OIN is doing and the continued growth of the community is so critical to innovation within Linux.

Keith Bergelt is CEO of Open Invention Network.

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