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RedHat has a headache

Posted on | October 13, 2007 | No Comments

Here we go, bravely into the world of dollar sharks and misnomers. A company named IP Innovation, LLC has filed suit against Red Hat and Novell claiming infringement on U.S. Patent 5,072,412 in a Texas court of law.

This comes literally ‘on the heels’ of Red Hat proclaiming itself to be immune to such litigation, in response to a rather very vocal precognition by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

“Wait!”, you say, “Didn’t Novell sign some kind of deal to protect themselves from this kind of litigation?” They sure did, but it’s not Microsoft who is suing them, this is another company that is staffed with quite a few former Microsoft employees.

Here’s what the crystal ball on Tim’s desk is saying:

The days of profiting from commercializing free software are over, we just haven’t realized it fully. We’re in a very odd race condition at this point, can the lawsuit abuse and patent-thugs-for-hire be squashed before the wind blows out of innovation due to all of the fighting and lawsuits?

I know many developers who are so sick of these kinds of issues that they stopped releasing free programs. It seems that, these days, everyone but the authors make money from their work. License wars are making many businesses ‘gun shy’ over how a program is licensed. Most people I have spoken with who write free software are just sick of ‘commercialization in general’. Now, we have patent suits about to go off like firecrackers.

Can you still make money from Free/Open software? Sure, but I doubt that packaging an OS is going to be the best idea in the future. The best way has always been through selling the use of your time and brain by helping people accomplish what they need to accomplish with GNU/Linux. Oracle, for instance, sells support for RedHat products. You can offer “Enterprise” levels of support, but I don’t think an “Enterprise” packaging of a free OS is a very good idea, at least until this settles down, which is going to take years.

I’m not going to antagonize anyone. Plenty of others are doing that which doesn’t seem to be helping much.

Even if Red Hat and Novell win, we’ve all lost (at least, for a while). Not every distribution has the financial and legal resources that the two combined can leverage. What happens when they pick on smaller packagers?

What happens when some patents covering parts of a hypervisor surface and get leveraged against those who package virtualization technologies? It won’t be long until they start going after web hosts who sell the use of free software that might violate a patent.

What a mess this has all become. I really don’t think this will be ‘just one’ lawsuit, I think we’re looking at the tip of a larger effort. I hope that I’m wrong :)


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