- By Grant Gross -
Red Hat has clarified its decision to seek patents on a couple of Linux-related pieces of software: We hate to do it, but the patents are defensive and designed to protect the Open Source/Free Software community.
Red Hat, in a statement at redhat.com, defends the patents as a necessary evil: "Red Hat has consistently taken the position that software patents generally impede innovation in software development and that software patents are inconsistent with open source/free software. "At the same time, we are forced to live in the world as it is, and that world currently permits software patents. A relatively small number of very large companies have amassed large numbers of software patents. We believe such massive software patent portfolios are ripe for misuse because of the questionable nature of many software patents generally and because of the high cost of patent litigation.
"One defense against such misuse is to develop a corresponding portfolio of software patents for defensive purposes. Many software companies, both open source and proprietary, pursue this strategy ..."
One PR person for Red Hat said the patents, on Embedded Protocol Objects and the method and apparatus for atomic file lookup, are designed to keep Microsoft and other proprietary companies from taking the code and patenting it.
Mark Webbink, Red Hat senior vice president and general counsel, has issued a short statement in response to questions about the patent applications. Red Hat's PR team said Webbink wasn't available for comment today, but they emailed this from him:
"The recent publication of several patent applications filed by Red Hat and pertaining to improvements in Linux which we have made available under the GNU General Public License have drawn public interest and questions on the reasons we have sought patent protection and how we will use those patents, if issued.
"In response, Red Hat has now published its Statement of Position and Promise on Software Patents which can be found at http://www.redhat.com/legal/patent_policy.html.
"We believe the position we are taking is consistent with both the interests of the open source/free software community and our company. By making Our Promise with respect to patents we hold we intend to give continued assurance of Red Hat's commitment to open source/free software."
In the "Statement of Position and Promise," Red Hat promises, in legalese, not to enforce any of its patents on groups using a small number of Open Source/Free Software licenses, including the GNU General Public License and the IBM Public License, but not the LGPL.
Red Hat's application for the two patents was first noted on LWN.net last Friday, prompting hundreds of comments on Slashdot. One poster wondered if Red Hat was seeking patents for money or principle. " You have to think about this ... are they filing for the money or will they open it?" the poster asked. "If they believe in Linux as a principle of their company they won't prevent anyone else from using it, but if they simply want to make shareholders happy they might charge for it."
Several posters defended Red Hat's actions on the assumption that the patents were defensive.
"Patents have nothing to do with free, open or closed licensing. They are merely to do with a system whose intention is to prove who invented what first," one poster wrote. "If you don't apply for a patent and you use 'your technology' then someone else could more easily take legal action upon you for using 'their technology'.
"In this way having a patent means that you get to decide the rules under which the technology (kill me now for using that word) is used. A good patent owner will licence it under good rules, and a bad patent owner will license under bad rules ... I certainly trust Red Hat."