Novell, EFF Announce Patent Reform Partnership

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

“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

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

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.

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