Facebook, HP, Rackspace, Juniper, Fujitsu and dozens of other organisations have joined a group building a defensive patent portfolio to protect Linux-using members from potential lawsuits.
The Open Invention Network (OIN), founded in 2005 by IBM, NEC, Novell, Phillips, Red Hat and Sony, has taken a portfolio of 300 patents and licences and built it up to more than 2,000 in a bid to protect the Linux community from intellectual property lawsuits.
Seeking to boost membership, the patent group said Wednesday it has added 74 new licensees in the first quarter of this year, bringing its total number of corporate supporters to 334. In addition to those companies listed above, new members include the OpenStack cloud group and many smaller organisations that back Linux and open source.
Additionally Google, which is fighting lawsuits against Linux-based Android, is moving up from licensee status to an associate membership, joining Canonical of Ubuntu Linux fame as the only companies with the second-highest level of OIN membership. Yahoo also joined as a licensee late last year.
One major threat to Linux, the SCO vs. Novell case, has gone by the boards since the Open Invention Network was founded, but threats remain, according to OIN CEO Keith Bergelt.
Microsoft hasn't pursued its claim that Linux and open source software violate 235 Microsoft patents, but "behind the scenes, they're still very active," Bergelt said. If Windows desktop market share ever erodes, Microsoft could become more lawsuit-happy. "They will continue to represent a potential source of antagonism toward Linux," he said.
But Microsoft is not the only company that potentially threatens Linux, according to Bergelt. "It's really just anybody who supports proprietary platforms and has a large [patent] portfolio that it likes to continue to use to be able to discourage choice," he said. "There will always be those who will be looking at Linux potentially threatening their livelihood, their way of life."
The OIN's goal is not to prevent legitimate use of patents to secure royalties when others infringe upon inventions, Bergelt said. The goal is to foster an open environment in which people can innovate without being subjected to frivolous claims, and prevent the tech industry form being dominated by "incremental innovation, which is a euphemism for mediocrity," he said.
The Open Invention Network's licensees gain access to patents owned by the Open Invention Network and agree to put their own Linux-related patents into a cross-licensing deal.
OIN patents cover a range of technologies. Security, transaction processing, mobile e-commerce and biometrics software for mobile devices and PCs are among the covered categories, Bergelt said.
Mobile patents in general will be an area of focus, with the Open Invention Network supporting the likes of MeeGo and webOS. OIN is "agnostic as to which platforms ultimately succeed," but given the current market leadership of Android it makes sense to put a special focus on Google's Linux-based mobile operating system. Makers of Android devices have faced IP lawsuits from Oracle and Microsoft.
"Because [Android] is the most significant in terms of market share, we'd like to ensure that it sustains itself," Bergelt said.
Although the Open Invention Network was founded by some of the biggest vendors in the tech industry, it has long focused on small companies that might not otherwise have the resources to protect themselves from lawsuits. But with its latest membership drive, OIN is shifting the focus to the industry's big fish. Facebook, for example, is a heavy user of Linux in its data centres.
Over time, Bergelt predicted that companies like IBM and HP will shift their patent strategy, filing fewer patent applications but focusing on ones that cover fundamental inventions and can be used as defence against lawsuits.
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