09.27.12

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Patent Troll Uses Software Patents to Attack Free Software Hosting

Posted in Free/Libre Software, Law, Patents at 12:02 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Troll picks cows

Summary: Github comes under patent attacks as debates about US patent law intensify

THE past few weeks have been rather crazy on the patents front and as scholarly work in the area gains traction we just know that this whole debate is important; it helps determine winners and losers.

Free software took a hit when some parasites attacked Rackspace over Github. As LWN put it, “Personalweb Technologies and Level 3 Communications have filed a lawsuit [PDF] against Rackspace, alleging that Rackspace’s hosting of GitHub infringes upon a long list of software patents.”

Here are the patents in question and a response from Rackspace which calls the attackers “patent trolls”: “Rackspace has been subjected to yet another patent lawsuit by a patent troll looking for a settlement. In this case, the plaintiff is called PersonalWeb Technologies. This particular lawsuit is not much different than the others, except that it highlights why software patent litigation suppresses innovation, and why Congress and the courts need to improve the system. If it wasn’t such a serious issue we might want to laugh at the irony of it all.

“Well, PersonalWeb is adding to its ridiculous legacy by suing Rackspace as well, though as the complaint makes clear (pdf), PersonalWeb seems mighty confused about what it’s suing over.”
      –Rackspace
“To explain, this suit claims that Rackspace infringes the PersonalWeb patents “by its manufacture, use, sale, importation, and/or offer for sale of the following products and services within the PersonalWeb Patent Field: Rackspace Cloud Servers and GitHub Code Hosting Service.” It’s apparent that the people filing the suit don’t understand the technology or the products enough to realize that Rackspace Cloud Servers and GitHub are completely different products from different companies. By now, it’s widely known that GitHub is hosted at Rackspace, but beyond that, there is no other connection between the two.”

TechDirt pokes fun at the troll: “Last year, we wrote about the somewhat random confluence of events that brought together two ex-file sharing industry execs (one associated with Kazaa and the other with Morpheus) and made them extreme patent trolls, suing a ton of internet companies under the ridiculous brand “PersonalWeb.” Well, PersonalWeb is adding to its ridiculous legacy by suing Rackspace as well, though as the complaint makes clear (pdf), PersonalWeb seems mighty confused about what it’s suing over.”

As we showed before, trolls favour software patents; it is why they are so common in the United States. Professor Lemley has an idea for closing the loophole: “In broad terms, functional claiming refers to writing patent claims that cover the broader function enabled by an invention rather than writing claims to the specific embodiment developed or contemplated by the inventor. In other words, instead of erecting a signpost that points others directly to the invention, functional claiming is akin to building a wide fence to surround the invention in an attempt to claim as much territory as possible. Lemley gives us the colorful example of the Wright brothers to illustrate both how functional claiming works and how it can cause problems/”

“As one expert noted in the Times story, patents “are supposed to be an incentive for innovation.” That’s not the way they’re working in the smartphone wars.”
      –Rob Tiller
The OSI’s head Mr. Phipps says that this “paper from legal researcher suggests a fix for the software patent mess has been lurking in the statute all this time” and Red Hat’s Rob Tiller uses the recent blow to Android to make his point. To quote: “Does the Apple-Samsung case have a silver lining? For the open source community, the large damages verdict is disturbing, but at least it is drawing public attention to some of the deep problems of our patent system. This week the New York Times ran a front page story on the jury’s verdict that said, “The case underscores how dysfunctional the patent system has become.”

“The definition of “dysfunctional” is relating to “abnormal or impaired functioning.” (Merriam Webster) The word fits well here. As one expert noted in the Times story, patents “are supposed to be an incentive for innovation.” That’s not the way they’re working in the smartphone wars. Instead, entrenched players are using them to tax competitors, or even to block them from the market. To the extent patents block competitors and reduce competition, innovation is likely to suffer.”

Even the FT is displeased with US patent law. Time to end software patents; with that, many patent trolls will also be eliminated. If companies like Apple can get their way using patents alone, then we simply cannot ignore the matter.

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