If you can't innovate, litigate! SCOracle lets slip the dogs
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
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
"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."
"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."