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Novell, EFF Announce Patent Reform Partnership

May 23, 2007, 18:45 (10 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

With all the controversy about software patents in the Linux technology space of late, it may come as a surprise to some people that one Linux company has today announced they will take unprecedented measures to assist the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in reforming the current patent system and eliminating bad software patents.

That company is Novell.

Novell made the announcement during a panel discussion at the Open Source Business Conference entitled "Is the Novell-Microsoft Deal Good for Open Source?"--a panel which included Novell's Director of Marketing Justin Steinman and Sam Ramji, Director, Linux Labs, of Microsoft.

"EFF is partnering with Novell to try to get rid of software patents that are hurting innovation all over the world," stated Shari Steele, Executive Director of the EFF in an interview prior to the panel session.

In essence, Novell is committed to working with the EFF to improve patent quality, while at the same time work to lobby with government agencies to reform existing patent policies and litigation, according to Nat Friedman. Novell's Chief Technology and Strategy Officer for Open Source. Specifically, Novell will assist the EFF in two ways.

First, they will work with and support the EFF's existing Patent Busting Project, which targets existing patents that cover technology concepts that are perhaps to fundamental or already have prior art.

"They're awarded for fundamental concepts in computer science on a too regular basis," Friedman stated. "Things like XOR, the ISNOT operator."

"If you go on our Web site," Steele added, "we asked Internet users to identify the ten most egregious patents out there. We have our 'Ten Most Wanted.' And we've been one by one hacking away away at them."

The second part of the partnership will have Novell working with the EFF and legislators to lobby for patent reform, initially in the US, but also branching out to Europe, where patent problems continue to arise. The EFF and Novell will also work with standards groups to assist in patent reform.

The news is notable because it's the first time, Steele confirmed, that a corporate entity has publicly thrown in this level of support for the EFF on the patent issue. Normally, Steele said, companies have been much more circumspect and allowed the EFF to solely take the lead on this issue.

Novell decided to do this because ultimately, Friedman explained, patents are going to be bad for everyone. Right now Novell and other companies hold their patent portfolios primarily as a defensive measure, against the very real threat of patent litigators who may come after large companies in order to gain money through litigation.

The timing on this announcement, particularly at today's panel session, can be construed as a message from Novell to their erstwhile partner Microsoft, which was recently attributed in the press as outlining 235 patents that alledgedly Linux infringes upon. Friedman says this is not the case. Microsoft, he believes, should have a vested interest in patent reform, too, because right now they are spending millions of dollars in ongoing litigation and settlements.

Given Novell's current portfolio, some in the community, still angered with Novell's partnership at Microsoft, might wonder why they are taking this approach instead of just making the move to dump their own patents. "Unilateral disarmament is not going to work," Freidman said.

While this partnership was not a direct response to Microsoft's recent patent statements, Steinman did give a more direct response when asked. "We have said to Microsoft over and over again that threatening the open source community is not a good idea."

Steinman added that he believes that there are various elements in Microsoft that are genuinely interested in working with open source, such as Ramji and Bill Hilf, General Manager of Platform Strategy.

But Microsoft is a big company, and Steinman believes that there are disparate opinions in the Redmond company about how exactly to deal with open source. What came out in the press recently was a outward sign of those different stances.