January 15, 2005

Anticipated OSDL announcement blown out of proportion

Author: Jay Lyman

It began trickling out with a press release indicating IBM, Intel and the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) had an announcement with "dramatic and global" implications. Then it got dramatic alright, with a report that the big January 25 announcement, code-named "Operation Open Gates," was a plan to rewrite Linux kernel components that might be infringing on some 283 patents, particularly those owned by Microsoft.

Two OSDL officials, however, told NewsForge that the report was "inflation of reality" and "not close to accurate at all." The officials instead indicated that while ODSL is working with the City of Beaverton and the State of Oregon, those bodies are not, as reported, underwriting the consortium that is "rewriting" the Linux code.

"It's just crazy," said one official, adding that the report's speculation on the patent strategy is "total fabrication as far as we can tell."

"The whole thing with patents -- that we can't figure out," he said, adding that the report was likely a case of putting together some disparate pieces of information incorrectly.

The other OSDL official said it is no secret that Beaverton, where OSDL and Linux creator Linus Torvalds are based, is putting $1.2 million into economic development around open source software, with support from the OSDL, member companies,` and others. However, the official downplayed the Jan. 25 announcement, denied any connection to a patent parsing strategy, and stressed that no companies have officially committed to the Beaverton open source effort.

And while he indicated that Beaverton's open source strategy -- to include an open source software center that draws talent from local institutions such as the University of Oregon and Oregon State -- may be the focus of the Jan. 25 announcement, the other OSDL official described the actual announcement as "banal," a contrast to the report that said the "consortium" of IBM, Intel and OSDL are planning a major, patent-focused overhaul of the Linux kernel.

The report suggested the effort revolves around a number of patents that Linux may supposedly infringe upon, based on assessment by Free Software Foundation attorney and Public Patent Foundation director Dan Ravicher.

The report said the open source consortium would rewrite at least the 27 Linux kernel components that involve Microsoft's intellectual property. Ravicher -- who has stressed that infringement issues are possible, but are not necessarily real and provable, and that the infringement issues with Linux are normal for operating system software no matter what kind of license it is issued under -- could not be reached for comment. However, a source close to Open Source Risk Management (OSRM), which commissioned Ravicher's review, claimed to know what the Jan. 25 announcement was and told NewsForge that it had nothing to do with Ravicher's study.

One of the OSDL sources indicated the "mixed up facts" may have come from Beaverton City Hall, which was also blamed for an overzealous press release about the Jan. 25 announcement, billed as the unveiling of "an unprecedented plan to facilitate the next major step (for open source)."

An official inside Beaverton City Hall did not respond for comment, but OSDL open source architecture specialist and evangelist Bill Weinberg told NewsForge the report of the patent defense plan was incorrect.

"That is not the case," Weinberg said. "The goal is to build a center of excellence for Linux and open source (in Beaverton)," Weinberg said. "What it does remains to be seen."

Weinberg also referenced IBM's recent patent move, signaling OSDL's support for the opening of patents. Weinberg, whose organization has formed a legal defense fund for Linux, added that some of the same patents opened by IBM are ones that Microsoft has laid at least partial claim to, including those in the Samba saga.

Weinberg emphasized that although there are potential patent issues for Linux, there is no industry or legally-accepted precedent or case law to indicate that patents such as those referenced by Ravisher are applicable.

"Until the patent holders do something or OSRM divulges what patents are at issue, there's really nothing to say on the matter," Weinberg said.

At least not until January 25, and maybe not even then.

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