Feeds

Patents and the threat to open source

Submarine attack on Linux, Apache, Tomcat et al?

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Mobile application security vulnerability report

Have you heard of the media company Acacia? Probably not but actually quite a few website owners have. Many of them have received FINAL NOTICES from Acacia Media Technologies Corporation (www.acaciaresearch.com). The leading light of Acacia (Newport Beach, California) is Robert A. Berman, who claims that his company owns a handful of U.S. Patents (Patents Nos. 5,132,992; 5,235,275; 5,550,863; 6,002,720; 6,144,702) and 17 International Patents covering the transmission and receipt of audio/video content via the Internet.

If you provide access to digital audio/video content via your website without a license from Acacia, then Berman insists that you are infringing his company’s patents. So either you have to pay $1,500 per year for a license or risk being sued. It’s your choice. Some companies have paid, including porn sites. Currently Acacia is sueing (and negotiating with) the cable companies. I’m not sure whether Apple or Microsoft has received a writ yet, but if not then it’s probably coming - if Acacia continues to have success.

What does this have to do with open source? Well, simply this: Acacia is one of a number of companies that are making a good living by sitting on patents that are actually very general in their application. Individuals can register such patents, with no ability to develop associated product, wait for infringing products to appear, then get a good lawyer and go hunting. Such patents are sometimes referred to as submarine patents.

A major fear of some of the movers and shakers in the open source movement is that someone (Microsoft, perhaps, but actually anyone with a patented ax to grind) will come gunning for Linux, Apache, Tomcat et al through the courts with a fistful of patents.

Actually, there is little point in sueing the originators of open source. You have to sue someone who is using it - which means a large corporation with deep pockets rather than the average geek with empty pockets. However the effect on open source would be the same. The 'right' patent could damage an open source product badly. This is, in fact, a fear that the SCO case has brought to the surface. It is also why many large corporations like software contracts that indemnify them against such legal hunting and why the likes of HP and Novell are providing such contracts.

How big a risk is it? It’s hard to say. Nobody actually knows what patents there are that might be used against open source products and how many would stand up to a legal challenge. Patents can be challenged on the basis of prior art - i.e. someone suggested the idea in the public domain or implemented it in some way before that patent was registered. Microsoft, for example, has patented the double-click. Is there any prior art? Who knows?

© IT-Analysis.com

Related stories

Free software guru speaks on patents
European Council snubs software patent vote
No US patent for the patently obvious
Patent lawyer puts claim to entire Internet

The Power of One Infographic

More from The Register

next story
KDE releases ice-cream coloured Plasma 5 just in time for summer
Melty but refreshing - popular rival to Mint's Cinnamon's still a work in progress
NO MORE ALL CAPS and other pleasures of Visual Studio 14
Unpicking a packed preview that breaks down ASP.NET
Secure microkernel that uses maths to be 'bug free' goes open source
Hacker-repelling, drone-protecting code will soon be yours to tweak as you see fit
Cheer up, Nokia fans. It can start making mobes again in 18 months
The real winner of the Nokia sale is *drumroll* ... Nokia
Put down that Oracle database patch: It could cost $23,000 per CPU
On-by-default INMEMORY tech a boon for developers ... as long as they can afford it
Another day, another Firefox: Version 31 is upon us ALREADY
Web devs, Mozilla really wants you to like this one
Google shows off new Chrome OS look
Athena springs full-grown from Chromium project's head
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.