Linux gets a bigger shield against patent attacks

Long-needed change by industry association formed to protect Linux from software patents finally arrives -- but beware the exceptions

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Free to attack
Too bad there's a sinister underbelly to this good news: what's omitted. Most notably, Android -- which is based on the Linux kernel -- is missing from the list altogether, along with its Dalvik language interpreter. Moreover, the definition is now so broad that two of the founders, Sony and Phillips, are concerned their products will be affected and have effectively reserved the right to sue the Linux community.

Here's the full list that Phillips and Sony have carved out, according to the new Linux System definition from OIN:

  • DVR functionality
  • Electronic Program Guide functionality
  • DVD video functionality
  • Blu-ray functionality
  • The Blu-ray format
  • Receiver functionality
  • Wireless networking functionality
  • Content matching and identification and recommendation functionality
  • DRM technology
  • Lighting control
  • User interface technology
  • Digital display technology
  • Camera functionality
  • Codecs
  • Virtualization technology (Philips only)

That's a broad swath of technology by any measure. Looking into the definitions of these terms, they cover pretty much everything that's interesting on mobile phones and tablets today: search, user interface innovation, photography, movies, and the technologies that allow them to be delivered to a customer. There were carve-outs for TiVo-like DVR functions in the old definition, but these new exceptions create a canyon big enough to swallow the whole Android mobile market.

This is no reflection on the sincerity of OIN itself. The expanded definition brings the possibility of patent protection to a much wider range of open source software projects than before. I've previously recommended membership of OIN to both the companies I've worked with and the open source communities in which I've helped. I continue to believe it's a valuable protection mechanism for those with the backing to use the patents in the event of hostilities breaking out.

Nonetheless, it's worth noting that OIN's patent pool gave no protection to Google when it was attacked by Oracle -- despite both being OIN licensees -- and the new carve-outs may presage a new round of conflicts. Both Sony and Phillips have fearsome software patent arsenals around consumer products. By specifically and publicly excluding them from OIN protection, they are putting us all on notice that they have no concerns whatsoever about litigation against any open source innovator straying into their market.

The bottom line is that enterprise developers can probably sleep easier now Java, Eclipse, and more are included by OIN. But if you're working on Linux-related consumer software, you appear to have some new sworn enemies.

This article, "Linux gets a bigger shield against patent attacks," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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