OSDL Creates Patent Commons Project

The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) has created a project to free developers from worry over violating intellectual property (IP) rights held by patent holders, the group’s CEO said Tuesday.

The OSDL patent commons project is still in the planning stages, OSDL officials said, and will initially consist of a library and database to aggregate the patent pledges made by companies in the past.

“The OSDL patent commons project is designed to increase the utility and value of the growing number of patent pledges and promises in the past year by providing a central repository where intellectual property can be held for the benefit of all of us,” Stuart Cohen, OSDL CEO, said in a statement.

The library will also house the indemnification plans offered by companies — Novell , HP and JBoss — to protect developers and businesses who use open source technologies.

Future efforts in the patent commons project involve encouraging developers and providing them the resources to gain a patent on their ideas, officials said.

Companies have supported a patent commons in the past. In January, IBM pledged 500 patents to developers who used the IP for applications that run under one of the many Open Source Initiative’s (OSI) licenses.

Sun Microsystems also released 1,600 of its patents under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) in January relating to its OpenSolaris initiative.

In a related event, Nokia pledged in May that it would not assert any of its IP found in the Linux kernel. It made the pledge in response to a report last year by the Open Source Risk Management (OSRM), which found 283 patents could be infringed by the Linux kernel.

More recently commercial Linux vendor Red Hat called for the creation of a patent commons along the lines of the Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that lets copyright holders get their IP into the public domain. The company plans to create its own patent commons under the recently formed Fedora Foundation.

The OSDL said it will not ask businesses that have already pledged patents to the open source community to cede control.

Diane Peters, OSDL general counsel, said the organization will act as patent stewards for anyone who asks but doesn’t expect any of the big companies to come forward with such a request.

“While we would love to have those, we certainly don’t expect those to come to OSDL,” she said.

Peters does expect individual developers and even universities to come forward with such requests, however, and will encourage them to do so. Where companies like IBM and HP can spend large amounts of money on patent enforcement, smaller organizations normally don’t have the resources.

She said the organization will announce soon the first individuals who have given the OSDL stewardship of their patents.

Getting large tech companies to let go of their IP would take some doing. IBM wasn’t available for comment at press time, but Red Hat officials plan to move forward with their own patent commons for technology that comes out of the Fedora Foundation.

With all the work going on at the Fedora Project right now, Leigh Day, a Red Hat spokeswoman, said, “it just makes sense, as far as the Fedora Foundation, to have a patent commons with all the innovation that’s occurring with these projects.”

Red Hat released its Global File System (GFS) to the open source community Wednesday under the Fedora Project. With the addition of the enterprise cluster file system, the Fedora Project now has three big Linux components under its management: GFS, Fedora Core and Fedora Directory Server.

Developers who are looking for a single repository of “safe” intellectual property to use in their applications might get confused by the many patent repositories, though, Day said, the company would re-visit its patent commons plans in that event.

“If the situation arises that confusion is there, we would work to alleviate that,” she said.

Gary Hein, vice president and service director for application platform strategies at the Burton Group, said the OSDL’s creation of a patent commons is great news for the community. It’s difficult, he said, for developers to navigate and understand what patent and indemnification resources are available, and having a one-stop aggregation point for all that information is a great first step.

However, he doesn’t find it very likely that companies would sign over their pledged patents to the OSDL, though ideally it would be great if software vendors did hand them over to an independent party.

“Realistically, I don’t think that’s going to happen and it’s because patents are really the realm, or domain, of the legal department inside of these companies,” he said. “I think, for the most part, they generate a lot of good will with these moves, but I think you’d find they would be hesitant to actually take these and hand them over.”

Eben Moglen, Software Freedom Law Center chair, said it’s a good idea to have the patents under one organization in any case.

“OSDL is the ideal steward for such an important legal initiative as the patent commons project,” he said in a statement. “No matter what your stand on software patents, and I oppose them, I call on developers to contribute to the OSDL patent commons project because there is strength in numbers and when individual contributions are collected together it creates a protective haven where developers can innovate without fear.”

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