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Moving on With Patents and Open-Source Software

By Stormy Peters, HP
September 5, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - I'm starting to wonder if we in the open-source community need a grass-roots effort to address patent and license issues. For the moment, let's just call it "usethesystem.org." Its purpose will be to help our open-source community put aside a resistance to patents and some of the misperceptions that are preventing the community from defending itself with a strong patent portfolio. We have the opportunity to thrive by embracing patents and highly promising means to do so, if we accept them as a fundamental part of our system.
I understand the open-source software community's frustration with the existing software patent infrastructure; like many of you, I engage in discussions and negotiations around patents regularly. But denouncing the patent system and refusing to file for patents isn't the answer, and avoiding the controversy won't make the need for patents go away. It doesn't change the legal system, remove the threat to your intellectual property or prevent others from continuing to file for patents. On the contrary, refusing to resolve the issue by addressing it head-on simply enables other interests, also known as your competitors, to keep on collecting the patents that will put them in the driver's seat with a greater ability to put their own interests ahead of yours -- and in some cases, the community's.
Two misconceptions about patents fuel the open-source community's resistance to creating a stellar patent portfolio and defense strategy. The first misperception, which I've heard often from open-source developers, is that prior art is a better method than patents for defending our ideas. But there's a fundamental flaw in that argument: Other parties are filing for patents while we are relying solely on prior art. While prior art prevents others from obtaining patents on the same idea and can be used to invalidate an inappropriately issued patent, a patent provides additional negotiating leverage that prior art simply can't. Leverage in negotiations is the name of the game.
The second commonly held, yet false, notion is that the open-source community can rely on corporations to give it the tools it needs to defend itself. There's a bit of wishful thinking and some rather skilled public relations spin in that idea. When a patent holder gives the community a license to use its patent, the patent holder is just saying that it won't sue the community for using that patent. What it's not giving the community is the ability to use that patent as defense against other patent holders. Unless the community is able to convince every U.S. patent holder



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