Patents and Street Credit

Posted by Jim Jagielski on Thursday, January 27. 2005

Much is being made of Sun's recent announcement that it is "releasing" over 1600 patents to cover and help with the development of Open Solaris. Some of the discussion, as expected, sees this action as a simple reaction to IBMs similar pledge of free use of some 500 of its patents to aid in the development of open source, and nothing more. Others applaud the action, but bemoan the fact that Suns "release" is not as wide-ranging as IBMs. As for me, well, I'm very much against software patents of any kind for fundamental reasons; I think that they severly restrict the distribution and usage of the technology to the areas in which they are needed the most. Anyone recall the hurdles you had to go through with the RSA patents and SSL? But if you do have patents, then opening them up to the open source community is a very welcome thing to do. Patents are still hammers, but (if they must exist) they should be tools used to allow work to proceed, not as a weapon to bring down on someone's toes. Of course, some of the more suspicious among us see Suns efforts as a blatant attempt to obtain more open source street credit. Personally, I don't see that at all; it appears the logical and expected action to promote the development of Open Solaris. But it's not unexpected for companies to make attempts to align themselves as "contributing members" of the open source community, even when they don't have the slightless clue what that means. My favorite thing is when a company tries to buy street credit by taking a software project that they no longer have any use for, slap an OSI approved license on it and assume that that makes 'em automatic members in good standing. These people just don't get it. They see the code as if it was that old, musty sofa in the basement and we need to get rid of it so why not donate it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army or even just dump it on the side of the road? Somebody will take it. It's not that way at all. Instead, open sourcing a software project is like transplanting a tree, from a shady area with clay-like soil, to a warm, sunny spot with rich, fertilized ground. You transplant it to ensure its health and growth and development. Not because you don't have any more need of it. No street credit isn't bought. It isn't obtained by simple declarations of being "pro open source" or claims that "we will help open source" and certainly not by butting into the communities with the mindset that "you all have been doing pretty well up to now, but we're here to help take you to the next level." Street credit is obtained by taking the time to honestly understand what open source really is, what it means. It's being active members of that community, and not for the prime reason of being able to use that as marketing hype. It's understanding that one key aspect of open source is collaborative, healthy development; that corporate governance of the requirements and direction of development, with no regard for the inputs of the development community or even no real regard for an external development community at all, may be open source in letter, but certainly not in spirit. It's not a bandwagon to jump on; it's a world-view. And the open source community can smell poseurs a mile away.

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