VoIP service provider Ooma joins Linux patent protection club

The Open Invention Network gives patented technology away to companies who promise not to sue Linux.

An organization created to protect Linux vendors from patent trolls has scored a new member, consumer VoIP device provider Ooma. Ooma is the second new company in as many months to join the the Open Invention Network (OIN). In March, another VoIP vendor, Guest-tek joined.

Linux Defender
I use the words "join" and "member" loosely. Technically, OIN calls these new companies licensees. But OIN is an organization in the true spirit of free and open software. Patents owned by the Open Invention Network are available royalty-free to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against the Linux System.

I love the concept behind OIN. Of course, OIN needs teeth to really work. The company has accumulated 300 patents and patent applications. While that sounds like a lot, the whole software patent mess is such that I fear this in itself isn't enough to protect a Linux vendor from being targeted by a patent troll -- or even by a legitimate inventor of a technology who wants to protect its turf.

This organization was founded in 2005 with some patent-holding heavy hitters, including Sony, NEC, Red Hat, Philips, Novell and (who else?) IBM. But IBM this week became the patent wielding bad guy. It caused outrage when it threatened an open source mainframe startup, TurboHercules SAS, with patent infringement claims. IBM claimed 162 patents were infringed upon, two of which were actually covered by its own do-not-enforce list, created in 2005. Updated 0409: OIN did not receive IP or patents from IBM, only funding from the company in 2005. So none of the 500 patents IBM put on its "do not enforce" list are also associated with those under OIN's domain. Still, 2005 was a stellar year for IBM's promises, and 2010 is proving otherwise.

Big Blue has since clarified that its "do not enforce" policy requires an open source vendor be a member of the Open Source Initiative, and a licensee of OSI in 2005 when IBM made that promise. (As my fellow blogger here on Network World's Open Source Subnet, Alan Shimel, says, IBM went from the sublime to the ridiculous with this stance.)

My point is that organizations like OIN, while great in theory, have a way of not holding up in practice. If lawyers from a giant corporation comes knocking at the door of an open source startup, that startup could be driven out of business in legal fees whether it stands in the wrong or not.

So I'm heartened by the fact that OIN is still signing up new blood to participate. And I have to remember that its primary goal isn't to protect the little guy from the big guy, but to protect everyone from patent trolls -- those who buy patents only to find a reason to sue someone over them. It's not the only one of this ilk. Cisco is a member of one called the Coalition for Patent Fairness.

Updated 0409: The folks at OIN heartily disagree with my characterization and say they do want to protect everyone. A spokesperson told me, "OIN does not just stop patent trolls from attacking Linux. It is there to make sure that no organization leverages IP against Linux. OIN has helped a number of companies. Probably the most visible was TomTom last year."

So OIN's mission is to protect and nurture Linux. In 2005, Linux and open source were fledging technologies and concepts. Today, they are big business. Red Hat is closing on being a $1 billion company, perhaps in 2010. Venture capitalists are pouring money into open source startups, and those folks have one major goal -- to make as much money as possible. (I've got no complaint with that. I'm a fan of money myself.)

I'm rooting for OIN and organizations like it. I want the future of software development, particularly open source, to be decided by the users and the developers and not by the lawyers.

Am I being too "Pollyanna" (meaning naively optimistic) in holding onto such a hope?

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