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How Software Patents Impede Standards and GNU/Linux Development

ISO in moneyLatest evidence from the news

THERE IS NOTHING MORE compelling than fresh examples which demonstrate the severity of the issues, so here are some reports and opinions that emerged this morning.



Patents Can't Mix with Standards



In a free society, standards and patents mix as well as water and sand. They just don't. We stressed this point last week and one new discussion from India re-highlights the threat of software patents to many different aspects of life.

Report on Free Software Free Society, 2008.



[...]

But this revolution is being threatened by monopolists who wish to control the generation and dissemination of knowledge. Venkatesh Hariharan, Eben, Mishi and Marco gave presentations on the current state of that stupid idea called software patents.


Glyn Moody says more on the same subject, with emphasis on so-called standards (which only the wealthy are permitted to support and comply with).

For if anything other than royalty-free terms are adopted, open source is effectively locked out – something that Microsoft knows full well, which is why it has pushed for “Reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing” (RAND). At first sight, this appears fair enough – after all, if it is non-discriminatory, what's not to like?

But the point is that it is not possible for free software programs to support even nominal licensing fees, since the unlimited, unchecked distribution of code makes it impossible to monitor how much should be paid.


We wrote about this subject many times before [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] and Rambus is a good example of the problems involved [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17]. Andy Updegrove, who is personally involved with that case, has got some new things to say about it.

This has made its stockholders particularly partisan, as its stock has risen and fallen in synchrony with its fortunes in court, and its detractors particularly irate, because they view Rambus not only as a patent troll, but also as one that has gamed the standards development process during the creation of a universally adopted SDRAM memory standard. Hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, of dollars of royalties are at stake.


Software Patents Can't Mix with Freedom



Apple's software patents definitely harm GNU/Linux [1, 2] and it turns out that a GPL violator known as VMware is doing the same thing. This might not be deliberate, but it's having the same effect. Despite the fact that VMware is a fairly new member of the Linux Foundation, this offers no peace of mind. VMware is now led by a Microsoft lackey [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], who fought Microsoft's rivals in all sort of nasty ways.

Here is the seminal analysis of the latest problem, which has just become visible to non-subscribers of LWN.

On the kernel page a few weeks ago, we took a look at KSM, a technique to reduce memory usage by sharing identical pages. Currently proposed for inclusion in the mainline kernel, KSM implements a potentially useful—but not particularly new—mechanism. Unfortunately, before it can be examined on its technical merits, it may run afoul of what is essentially a political problem: software patents.


Heise gives the shorter and simpler version of this story.

A report from LWN.net suggests that there may be a patent problem with KSM, a memory management technology that is a candidate for inclusion in a future version of Linux. KSM attempts to extend the idea of sharing memory pages between processes from just managing shared libraries, to any identical memory pages, such as running multiple copies of the same program, or virtualised guest operating systems.


The threat affects KVM, which is now owned by Red Hat, the largest contributor to Linux. Quoting from the above, "The folks behind the KSM project are some of the kvm hackers from Qumranet—which is now part of Red Hat."

Well, Red Hat has already expressed its support for the Linux Defender project, which it also helps fund. From Red Hat Magazine:

“The idea is to create a defensive patent shield or no-fly zone around Linux,” says Keith Bergelt, the chief executive officer of Open Invention Network, the consortium launching the site. The core members of that group, formed in 2005, are IBM, NEC, Novell NOVL, Philips, Red Hat RHT and Sony.


We previously wrote about this initiative in [1, 2, 3, 4]. More could be done to topple the broken system rather than abide by and obey its rules.

"Fighting patents one by one will never eliminate the danger of software patents, any more than swatting mosquitoes will eliminate malaria."

--Richard Stallman

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