PORTLAND. Who’s afraid of patents? Not Mark Shuttleworth founder of Ubuntu Linux and CEO of Canonical. He figures he’s ‘REALLY’ got it covered.
In a session at OSCON, Shuttleworth stood in for one of his Canonical employees to talk about development practices. He talked enthusiastically and technicaly about key elements of LEAN and AGILE programming methodologies – it was an interesting overview but when he was done (and started Q&A) I felt that something was missing.
Shuttleworth didn’t talk about IP or licensing issues which is often the key FUD that non-open source vendors tend to bring up when discussing open development. And also because a keynoter in the AM talked about patents as well and I wanted to get Ubuntu’s take.
So after others in the room asked their questions (including David Asher from Mozilla Messaging) I asked my question:
“From a development best practices point of view is there
a good way to bake in IP, Patent and license compatibility issues into your
methodology?” I asked.
“The GPLv3 is a really good solution,” Shuttleworth said as he paused in thought then continued. “It’s a really good
question and it’s also really difficult as it’s enormously difficult for any
company to know if they are treading on someone else’s patents. We’re really
doing this – [Shuttleworth then covered his face with his hands] in a minefield.
I don’t know how you can encourage developers to be
confident that they’re not trampling on other patents. Do you have any suggestions?“
“Microsoft has X number of patents and no one
knows if they’ve infringed,” I said. “So what happens if some infringing code gets
committed to Debian, that code gets merged with Ubuntu and then that puts you at
Canonical at risk for your commercial customers since you indemnify them right?”
“I don’t believe Microsoft is going to sue any open source
software vendor, doing so would be tantamount to launching nuclear war.”
The audience erupted into laughter.
“We do copyright assignment and I really do believe that’s
a valuable practice,” Shuttleworth continued. “As part of our
copyright assignment we don’t ask for any statement about patents, we accept
the code, it’s a contribution and we take responsibility for it and we carry
“Really,” replied Shuttleworth.
“Really?” the same audience member said again.
“Really,” Shuttleworth repeated as the audience laughed.