Red Hat is long been a likely target of legal attacks; the company has a
high profile, customers who can be threatened, and a bank balance which is
worth the trouble of coveting. So it is not entirely surprising that a
small company called FireStar chose Red Hat as the target for a software
patent suit. It is unlikely to be the last.
The patent in question is US
patent 6,101,502, which is said to be infringed by the "Hibernate"
product acquired with JBoss. This patent, filed in 1998, asserts the
A method for interfacing an object oriented software application
with a relational database, comprising the steps of:
- selecting an object model;
- generating a map of at least some relationships between schema
in the database and the selected object model;
- employing the map to create at least one interface object
associated with an object corresponding to a class associated with
the object oriented software application; and
- utilizing a runtime engine which invokes said at least one
interface object with the object oriented application to access
data from the relational database.
In other words, this is a patent on an object-oriented wrapper for data in
a relational database management system. To say that this idea is obvious
is to understate the case. The first thing any object-oriented programmer
does is to create classes to encapsulate the data to be manipulated; of
course such a programmer would create a series of objects to represent
relations in an RDBMS. One would expect that it would be possible to
examine a large number of object-oriented programs which work with RDBMS
systems and not find a single one which lacks this sort of
impedance-matching layer. So the world did not need to wait until 1998 for
the authors of this patent to come up with this idea.
Thus, if Red Hat puts up a suitable level of resistance, it should be able to
get this patent invalidated. But there is little comfort to be found
there. There are thousands of these patents in circulation and no shortage
of trolls willing to exploit them to line their own pockets. One such case
can be beaten down; but there will be more than one. Perhaps many more.
Software patents have long been seen as a serious threat to free software;
now we are beginning to see this threat come to life.
[As an aside, there have been some allegations that at least one Red Hat
employee engaged in pro-patent lobbying in Europe last year, and that, as a
result, this suit represents a sort of poetic justice. See this week's Letters Page for a
discussion of both sides of this issue. The statement from FFII found
there would appear to establish that Red Hat's position on software patents
has been clear and consistent.]
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