Enterprise Linux Log

Apr 9 2008   2:54PM GMT

Perens: The co-optation of patents, standards threaten IT innovation

Suzanne Wheeler Suzanne Wheeler Profile: Suzanne Wheeler

The success of open source software (OSS) has software giants like Microsoft running scared, OSS pioneer Bruce Perens says. Although most IT shops today use OSS such as Nagios, Samba, Apache and other programs, the open source community is still in a vulnerable spot, as software vendors use their patents to gain unfair market advantage and even take control of OSS products and standards.

I talked with Perens recently, and our topic was what IT managers need to know and do about the state of open source software. Perens says that IT managers are in the best position to lobby proprietary software vendors to protect and not attack the OSS community. IT shops are those vendors’ customers, after all, and have some clout; whereas, the large majority of open source developers — mostly self-employed or volunteers — are poorly equipped to stand up to major corporations that are trying to grab ownership of OSS.

Proprietary software vendors are both co-opting open source and, as stealthily as possible, trying to destroy OSS with software patent threats. If proprietary software vendors succeed in stymieing OSS development, technology innovation will slow down, and interoperability in heterogeneous environments will be difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

Protecting OSS will help IT organizations retain the ability “to purchase software without becoming tied to that [software vendor] for other software” to manage or complement it, Perens told me.

The protection of open standards should also be on IT pros’ agenda. Once a proprietary software vendor gets hold of rights to software standards, there are few obstacles to that vendor expanding those rights. Perens urges IT organizations to support the International Standards Organization (ISO). Established to govern the process of patent distribution, ISO working to adapt standards to the reality of the current marketplace. Most companies need interoperable software for many functions, from exchanging Microsoft Office documents to sharing databases across systems. The ISO needs the support of IT leaders in order to support the development of software interoperability amid pressure applied by proprietary vendors.

“Software patents are a problem especially for open standards, because they may prevent a standard from being usable by everyone,” Perens told me. ” If there’s a royalty or discriminatory licensing to the patent, that usually rules out open source implementations.”

With ISO/IEC 26300, Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) v1.0., the ISO did address business software interoperability in 2006. This requires all office documents to be able to be sent from one software system to a competing software system without having to be re-formatted.
In the U.S., it has been hard to stop software vendors from filing or expanding software patents that lack integrity and bankrupting OSS startups with lawsuits. U.S. “lawmakers are so in thrall to big-media lobbyists that they do not even realize that counterarguments to copyright extensions exist,” said Professor at Stanford Law School and founder of the Center for Internet and Society Lawrence Lessig.

U.S. antitrust suits have gotten few results; but, in 2007, the European Commission filed the largest antitrust suit against Microsoft yet, for withholding information that would let rival vendors defend themselves from product integration, rolling out a penalty of $1.3 billion.

But, Perens pointed out, this was merely one step forward in a larger struggle.

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