Oracle filed a patent lawsuit against Google this week, claiming that the Android operating system infringes Oracle patents and copyrights related to Java. I doubt that many observers were surprised, and in fact there is a loud chorus of “Told you so”. Andy Updegrove, who is a lawyer, says
“Clearly, Java was one of the Sun crown jewels, so the question is, what to do with it? Since Sun would presumably be quite happy to license the patents to Google, that suggests that the motivation is monetary rather than strategic….”The problem for Oracle is that the Java elements that Google used were “clean room” versions of Java developed by a third party. But while clean room versions may not violate Oracles’ copyrights, creating a clean room version may have little or not impact on avoiding patent infringement. Interestingly enough, Oracle is alleging copyright infringement as well as patent infringement.”
James Niccolai of Computer World reports:
“Oracle’s motivation was probably Android’s recent successin the smartphone market, Dulaney said. “They own Sun now and they want to collect the royalties on the language,” he said.”Oracle alleges that Google was aware of its patents and “willfully and deliberately” infringed them. It also says Google hired some of Sun’s Java engineers. It wants the court to block the alleged infringement and award it damages.”
Steven Vaughan-Nichols uncovered a scary nugget:
“…the Java specification patent grant that went along with it, and which came out in December 2006, is only valid if developers use fully compliant Java implementation. Oops.”If I were Google or any other company that has shipped Java spins-offs, I’d be worried.”
What Does it Mean?
It’s a screwed-up, dysfunctional, self-destructive system that lets businesses lock up ideas, concepts, and employees, requires insane levels of contractual nitpicking and hair-splitting, and makes it impossible do anything without having to pay a toll to some rapacious troll somewhere. FOSS licenses provide a measure of protection from this chest-beating greedy nonsense, but the weak point is patents, and these days anything can be patented, no matter how vague, trivial, or non-original. Despite the token bleatings we hear from the corporate suites from time to time about how broken the US patent system is, I notice a conspicuous lack of effort to cure the problem. With all the money and clout these big companies have, it is highly improbable that they can’t influence real reform. I think they believe they have a vested interest in the status quo and don’t want it to change, because it favors the big boys and makes it easier to crush upcoming small businesses, entrepenuers, and FOSS. Don’t believe all the hot air about free enterprise, because the name of the game is stacking the deck. (Don’t forget that the biggest “friend” of Linux, IBM, is also the world record patents-holder.)
Beware of Suits Bearing Code
An important lesson here is corporate involvement is always fraught with peril. Today’s friend of FOSS is tomorrow’s enemy: through acquisition (Sun/Oracle), change of leadership (SCO), or desperation. There are an awful lot of FOSS fans who think FOSS needs big-time corporate involvement to succeed, and big-time support from rich Santas like Mark Shuttleworth. This is a cop-out. How often do we hear “Someone needs to….” market Linux, fund development, make OEM deals, lobby government, and so on? What they’re saying is someone else needs to. For FOSS to succeed it needs a strong, genuine, active grass-roots base, and that means you, me, and every Linux and FOSS user. If we abdicate, then the suits take over and it becomes just another strategic element for big business, and we get locked out. Of course that is ultimately self-defeating for businesses, too, but few of them bother to look beyond the next financial quarter, and I have yet to notice anyone who runs a big company lose so much as a wink of sleep over the giant swaths of scorched earth they leave behind, or to suffer any worse consequences than to receive multi-million dollar severance packages.
If Free/Open Source software supporters are serious about how wonderful and valuable FOSS is, a lot more of us need to get off our buns and figure out how to become contributors. A heck of a lot of FOSS projects need to get smarter about community-building, and to take it a lot more seriously. It’s not enough to throw out some code and shrug “Hey, if someone wants to send patches, cool, if they don’t, oh well.” Successful projects build inviting bridges for users who want to become contributors. Ubuntu is the poster child for this. It’s no secret how it works– they are welcoming, friendly, and provide multiple paths and guidance for potential contributors. (Duh, who wants to be part of a project that is hostile and unhelpful?)
Andy Updegrove told me that
“What people look at as community property should be put into non-profit foundations.”
That is a fascinating idea that I am going to follow up on. Hint: read Copyright assignment – Once bitten, twice shy: The misuse of free software licences
Meanwhile, you may wish to enjoy the all-time most successful Linux Today story which addressed this very topic over four years ago, Brian Proffitt’s Beware of Suits Bearing Code.