In case you haven’t heard, NetApp has filed suit against Sun, saying Sun’s ZFS violates its patents. And it’s clear we’ve reached a new age in media when one high-profile company sues another, and a good portion of the sniping and posturing back and forth is coming from CEOs writing on corporate blogs, while having their words propagated and dissected via other Web 2.0 sources.
Dave Hitz, co-founder of NetApp, got things kicked off with his blog post Sept. 5, which was posted two minutes after NetApp’s official conference call began. Hitz’s blog post was also referenced in NetApp’s press call and in NetApp’s supporting materials for the announcement of the suit, and in many cases goes into greater detail than any of NetApp’s supporting documents save for the official copy of the complaints it filed in court. Hitz is also in a unique position to write about the case since he is a co-founder of the company, and one of the actual holders of some of the patents in question.
After NetApp’s initial splash, though, Sun set tongues wagging anew late Wednesday when it responded to NetApp’s announcement with a counterattack of its own. Once again, there was a formal statement released through the usual channels, but CEO Jonathan Schwartz also posted at length on his blog, providing color similar to that submitted by Hitz.
Of course you know what’s coming next: the rebuttal by Hitz to Sun’s counterclaims.
At some point, the legal wrangling and public posturing go beyond what we in the tech-focused world can or really should puzzle out. Clearly, there are two mutually exclusive sides to the story here, or there wouldn’t be a court case.
But that hasn’t stopped the court of public opinion from swinging into action, and for good reason: the ultimate outcome for this case, while currently beyond anyone’s prediction, has implications for the storage industry from who owns snapshot technology to which product you, the storage user, will choose to deploy in your shop–ZFS, or a NetApp filer?You know what they say about opinions. And what’s most interesting about this fight’s transfer to the blogosphere is the freedom users, industry experts and even interested parties have to weigh in on the situation, either because it’s a less formal forum or because they can hide behind a pseudonym online.
A sampling of the debate begins, of course, with the commentary on the blog posts. “Why can’t you and Dave Hitz just sit down across a table with a couple of beers (and/or lawyers) and hash this out?” a commenter on Schwartz’s post asks. “Sniping at each other via your blogs isn’t going to impress any customers.”
Other observers are doubtful about Schwartz’s claims that he didn’t know about the suit until after NetApp made its announcement. “You cannot expect anyone to believe that, in your position, you were unaware of NetApp’s suit until a shareholder pointed it out during questioning at today’s analyst event…if it is true, it doesn’t speak well for communication within Sun. I’d hate to think you’d play us all for fools,” wrote Joseph Martins, analyst with the Data Mobility Group, also on Schwartz’s post.
Then there are the comments, largely taking place on other forums like Slashdot, which sketch out the primary positions on this case, since the claims by each company are so contradictory it’s not possible to find a middle view. “It seems as though NetApp was rather nice about this whole patent thing from the get go,” wrote a NetApp supporter on the Slashdot comment thread. “It wasn’t until Sun threatened them that they acted and again acted fairly preferring a cross licensing deal rather than any cash payout in either direction.”
“Sun guy [sic] contradicts himself,” writes another armchair litigant. “‘Never demanded anything’ and ‘always been willing to license’ do not fit together. Licensing means demanding fee. NetApp says they do not use technology covered in Sun patents, still Sun is ‘always willing to license’ it.”
Other readers, however, side with Sun. “In England,” writes another Slashdot user, “What NetApp appears to be doing is called shouting Get Your Tanks Off My Lawn.”
As the initial discussions died down, however, new ideas about the suit, the agendas on both sides, and its effect on the market have emerged. Questions being raised include: How can open source technologies be regulated? What is the ultimate relationship between proprietary and open source products in the industry? Is a patent suit the best way to address them? The result of these discussions has been the beginning of a backlash against both companies.
“The only people that get hurt [are] the consumer[s], who [have] to pay all these pathetic lawyers and their pathetic clients gazillions, either in protection money against this racket, or in court battles over ridiculous things like linked-list file systems and outrageously vague one-click patents,” writes one poster who calling themselves MightyMartian.
Another responds, ” I’ve been looking at NAS/SAN boxes, mainly the StoreVault S500, or the higher-end NetApp 270, or a lower end Sun StorageTek 52xx for my work…I hate patents, love ZFS, but not sure which one to order now! Guess I’ll have to give Equallogic another call…”
Now that the initial excitement has died down, I’ve begun to wonder if, for all the bluster, the end result will be a cross-licensing agreement between the two companies. Some previous alliances have been forged out of two companies lining up against one another, realizing what they have in common (including common enemies) and reaching an agreement. The parties involved here certainly sound sincere, and it seems unlikely that if there were a way to resolve this privately that they wouldn’t have taken it public after 18 months of negotiation.
But the skeptical side of me definitely wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the end result of all this pomp and circumstance is that it has drummed up attention for the eventual partnership or even acquisition of IP between the companies. Whether or not that was the plan all along will only ever be known to a few people, and otherwise will be, like the rest of this case, in the eye of the beholder.