Open Invention Network is reportedly buying up a number of Linux-related patents that Microsoft sold the rights to earlier this year. The move allows OIN to retain legal rights to the patents and license them freely to the open source community, thereby ensuring that less-scrupulous buyers don't acquire them and initiate frivolous patent-infringement cases.
The open source community operates from a different point of view as it relates to intellectual property ownership and in generally abhors the concept of patents. However, patent and intellectual property rights exist and the open source community has been forced to both defend itself from patent infringement suits and pursue those who misappropriate open source code.
The open source community, by its very nature, is a grassroots, volunteer experiment in collaboration. The premise of open source software is for the community to work together to develop software products which are freely distributed and used.
OIN helps the open source community- particularly the Linux community- to straddle the fence between the collaborative sharing of open source code and the legal world of intellectual property and patent rights. According to its web site, OIN "was formed to promote Linux by using patents to create a collaborative environment." The site also states "Patents owned by Open Invention Network are available royalty-free to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against the Linux System."
That brings us to the tension between OIN and Microsoft. OIN members include industry giants such as IBM, Redhat, and Sony, but Microsoft is notoriously absent. By not officially joining OIN, Microsoft is sending a tacit message that it still retains the right to assert its patents against Linux developers and OIN members.
You might think facing a steady stream of accusations of patent infringement such as the i4i patent infringement case against Microsoft Word and other legal challenges would make Microsoft less trigger-happy about initiating its own patent suits. However, Microsoft has never been shy about asserting its intellectual property rights. In 2004 Microsoft pursued Lindows for being too close to the Windows trademark. Earlier this year, Microsoft reached a settlement in a suit against GPS-maker Tom Tom for code which is actually part of the Linux kernel.
This purchase is an opportunity for OIN to continue to fulfill its mission of protecting the Linux community by purchasing up patents which could be used in frivolous patent infringement cases. Because these patents were already on the open market, OIN is really protecting the open source community from patent trolls. But, because the patents came from Microsoft it also means fewer patents in the Microsoft arsenal so its like killing two birds with one stone.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.