Keith Bergelt, CEO of the Open
Invention Network (OIN), described the circumstances which led the
company to recently purchase
22 Microsoft patents, as part of a talk at the first LinuxCon.
While the circumstances surrounding that purchase were quite
interesting—and indicative of Microsoft's patent strategy—he
also described the mission of OIN as a protector of Linux
from patent trolls. Because patents are likely to be a threat to Linux for
a long time to come, organizations like OIN are needed to allow Linux
development to continue with as few patent impediments as possible.
Linux Foundation (LF) executive director Jim Zemlin introduced Bergelt by
noting that OIN had done a great service for the Linux industry and
community by purchasing those patents, which otherwise would have gone to
"non-operating" companies—essentially patent trolls. Bergelt caught
wind of the sale and headed off what might have been a potent attack
against Linux, Zemlin said.
OIN was started by six companies (Sony, IBM, NEC, Red Hat, Philips, and
Novell) four years ago to anticipate and preempt these kinds of patent
sales, Bergelt said. It is a "very unusual entity" and when
he was approached to be the CEO, it took some time to understand the
"active benevolence" that was the mission of OIN. The members
put a "very significant amount of money" into OIN, which means
that, unlike a pledge fund, the capital is available, allowing Bergelt the
autonomy to make decisions about how to deploy it.
OIN licenses its patents for use by others, with the proviso that those
companies not assert their patents against Linux. It is, essentially, a
defensive patent pool for the entire Linux community.
He sees the mission of OIN as allowing Linux to "be beneficial, at a
macro level, to economic growth", by reducing the patent threat.
The most recent patents were purchased from Allied Security Trust (AST), which
represents its 15 members (including three that Bergelt named: HP,
Ericsson, and IBM) by buying patents, licensing them to the members, and
then reselling the remaining rights on the open market. Bergelt contrasted
AST and OIN, saying that the latter is not just representing the six
companies who are its members, but is, instead, "representing
In his view, "patents will continue to exist", so it is
important to "ensure that they don't have a negative impact on Linux
in the future".
Bergelt described Microsoft's
patent suit against TomTom as being a part of the software giant's "totem
strategy". By getting various companies to
settle patent suits over particular patents, Microsoft can erect (virtual)
totem poles in Redmond, creating a "presumption of patent
relevance". According to Bergelt, Microsoft tends to attack those
who try to create parity with it in some area, which TomTom did. But, TomTom had overextended
itself with a large
amount of debt from their acquisition of mapping company Tele Atlas. That
made it an opportune time to put the squeeze on TomTom, which is exactly
what Microsoft did.
But, Microsoft was surprised to find that TomTom had allies in the form of
OIN and others.
Originally, Microsoft had asked for an "astronomical" sum to
settle the suit, but after TomTom joined OIN and countersued Microsoft, the
settlement number became much smaller. In fact, it was small enough that
it was not necessary to report the amount under Dutch securities
regulations. Because the cost to defend a patent suit—even
successfully—could be upwards of $14 million, the TomTom board really
had no choice but to settle.
But, patent suits are generally fairly high-profile, and there are other
means to attack Linux companies more quietly. One of those is to sell
patents to "non-practicing" (or "non-operating") entities who have no other
business besides patent litigation. These trolls do not have any products
that could be the target of patent countersuits, which is a standard way of
combating patent suits. Bergelt said that $20 billion has been spent this
decade by multiple organizations to acquire patents for trolling.
Companies with large patent portfolios have been pressured by investors to
use those patents to generate revenue. One way to do that is to sell them
to trolls, which brings in money and insulates the company from actually
bringing suit itself. In some cases, this has led to patent trolls
attacking the customers of the company who originally held the patents,
Over the last three years, OIN has been one of the three largest patent
acquirers, so it could not have been an oversight that Microsoft did not
approach OIN about buying these patents. The bundle of patents was
expressly presented as being relevant to Linux, which has the effect of
"pointing the troll in the right direction", according to
Bergelt. He clearly indicated his belief that this was an attempt to
attack Linux by proxy; Microsoft would have "plausible
deniability" because they could claim they were sold to a defensive
patent pool such as AST.
But, AST is required to resell the patents it acquires, after licensing
them to its members, within 12 months of purchasing them. Normally it
would sell them to trolls, but Bergelt was able to arrange a purchase by
OIN. He noted that if you wanted to get patents to trolls, but keep your
hands "clean", selling them to AST is the right way to do it.
Going forward, though, there is a patent treaty forming between AST and OIN,
which should help alleviate this particular problem in the future.
The Data Tern/Amphion patent suit against Red Hat, which was based on a
relational database patent, was also noted by Bergelt as a successful
defense of free software from a patent threat. Red Hat settled the suit on behalf of
the community as a whole, rather than allow further suits against free
software to be filed. Bergelt said that Data Tern/Amphion were "not
anti-Linux", in contrast to Microsoft's intent, but were focused
purely on the return on its investment in buying the patent.
Intellectual Ventures is an organization to keep an eye on, Bergelt said,
as it has some 23,000 patents, more than any other non-practicing
entity. Three weeks ago, it started selling some of its patents—to
patent trolls. OIN is also approaching patent trolls to suggest that they
contact OIN before suing Linux companies. In some cases, OIN has averted
lawsuits by acquiring patent rights from trolls.
The 22 patents in question are listed on the OIN website, but they aren't
separated from the rest of the patents that OIN has acquired. They were
all issued to either Microsoft or SGI originally, though, Bergelt said,
which should assist anyone wishing to study what the patents cover. He
noted that they are not the OpenGL patents, as some thought, because those
are believed not to read on Linux.
In addition to acquiring patents, OIN has several other projects that
are meant to reduce the patent problems for Linux. Peer to patent and post-issue peer to
patent are both meant to "crowdsource" the process of finding prior art
for patents that are in process or those that have already been issued.
The former is meant to help the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) so that
bad patents don't get issued, while the latter looks for bad patents so
that they can be submitted to the PTO for re-examination.
publications are another strategy that companies can take to protect
their ideas without patenting them. OIN is advocating the use of defensive
publication to create prior art, so that, in the best case, patents will
not be granted covering those ideas. Instead of the "negative
right" that is created with a patent, defensive publication creates
something that everyone can use, but no one can patent. OIN's lawyers will
review defensive publication submissions for free, making any necessary
changes and then adding them to the IP.com
database which is used for prior art searches by the PTO.
Companies who want to patent their ideas can also use defensive publication
by patenting the core idea and wrapping that core with published
information. This is happening more frequently because the cost of a
patent application is becoming "prohibitive". OIN is
encouraging the community to use
defensive publications to protect its ideas as well.
Bergelt stressed that OIN is not set up as an anti-Microsoft organization,
as they are focused on any entity threatening Linux with patents. In the
most recent case that was Microsoft, but his expectation is that
"Microsoft will go through a painful transition", but will
eventually join the free software community. The benefits of free software
development will be too strong to resist.
In closing, both Zemlin and Bergelt mentioned the Linux Defenders project, which is a
joint venture between OIN, LF, and the Software Freedom Law Center. It is
the umbrella organization for the peer to patent efforts along with the
defensive publication initiative, but it also seeks to counsel companies
who have been approached about patents that read on Linux. Zemlin noted
that the traditional approach is to get a potential victim to sign a
non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before discussing the patents in question.
He stressed that companies should get in touch with Linux Defenders
before signing the NDA, as that seriously limits what help it can
In response to questions from the audience, Bergelt noted that there is
some hope for patent reforms, which may "narrow the space" for
trolls to work in. Judges are starting to recognize the problem he said,
but wholesale changes are not likely in the cards. In addition, he noted
that even defining "non-practicing entity" is difficult, pointing to
Qualcomm as an example of a company that was not very successful using its
patents in products, but quite successful in licensing them to others.
He also sees hope at the PTO. Fewer poor patents are being issued and far
fewer patents are being issued overall. Things are changing, but they will
never be as good as we want them to be, he said.
Comments (37 posted)
Dirk Hohndel has been a member of our community since the earliest days.
In recent years, he has helped direct Intel's (very friendly) strategy
toward Linux - a job which has required, one assumes, a great deal of
educational work inside the company. Dirk also spends a fair amount of
time outside of Intel, advising the community on how it can work better
with vendors, with
customers, and with itself. His thoughtful talks on the topic are usually
well worth hearing. In two separate talks on the first day of the
first LinuxCon, Dirk had some fairly general thoughts on how the next steps
toward world domination can be taken.
When ASUS created the netbook market, its disruptive new machines all ran
Linux. The development community welcomed this news, which seemed like a
validation of much of what we've been doing all these years. But it did
not take very long before Microsoft was announcing that the vast majority
of netbook systems were now shipping with Windows instead. How is it, Dirk
asks, that Windows is able to displace Linux on systems like netbooks?
Part of the problem, certainly, was the second-rate distribution which was
shipped with the early netbooks. It suffered from what Dirk calls the
"three click problem." When the system is first turned on, everything
looks great. But, by the time the user gets three clicks into the system,
it's clear that it is an unfinished product. Obvious problems -
configuration dialog boxes for applications which do not fit on the small
screen, for example - are everywhere. So it does not take long for users
to feel that they have not gotten what they really wanted.
But the bigger problem, says Dirk, is that the systems installed on these
devices are trying to be Windows. They are trying to beat Microsoft at its
own game, and that is a difficult strategy at best. If the ultimate goal
of a development project is to copy somebody else, it is inevitable that
the project will always be behind its target. It will never be a perfect
copy, and users will know. The user's experience will always be less than
it could be with the original.
An example is OpenOffice.org's attempt
to copy the "ribbon" interface found in Office 2007. It's already two
years later, it is not that great an interface in the first place, and
OpenOffice.org will not do it as well as Microsoft did. Suffice to say
that Dirk does not appear to be much impressed by this particular
Similarly, attempts to copy the iPhone in mobile devices are doomed to an
always-inferior existence. There has to be a better way.
That better way, says Dirk, is to move past the desktop metaphor which
was never all that great an idea in the first place. People who are
buying computers now are not interested in desktops, and they do not really
care about the operating system they are running. What they want is to
join communities. So the most important thing we should be doing, in the
design of our applications and interfaces, is to better connect users with
the communities they are interested in.
Indeed, the processes in many communities seem to have
the explicit goal of encouraging people interested in design to go
On the issue of design, Dirk made the claim that we have few real designers
in our communities. Indeed, the processes in many communities seem to have
the explicit goal of encouraging people interested in design to go
elsewhere. One partial exception might be KDE; Dirk claims that KDE
applications tend to be nicer because Nokia (and Trolltech before it) have
put true design resources into the Qt toolkit. In general, though, we are
not doing a good job of reaching out to designers, but we need those
designers if we are going to create great systems.
The closing note of this talk was simple: listen to the users. And, by
"users," he did not mean the people in the room, but the much wider user
community that we need to reach.
Dirk's second talk filled a brief keynote slot; it was called "how to shine
in a crowded field." The specific crowded field he was talking about was
consumer electronics, which is packed with devices in search of customers.
In this market, success is not something that just happens. There are,
says Dirk, four things which are required.
The first of those is vision. There are, he says, plenty of visionaries
out there, even if many of them do not see as far as they might think. We
need those visionaries - just following others is, as was described above,
not the way to be successful. Our community needs people who are not stuck
doing things the way they have always been done.
The second requirement is competence - the ability to actually implement
the visions. One of the nice things about the open source world is that
competence is very much on display. We can (relatively) easily measure the
competence of others, and our own competence as well. We are very free to
learn from each other and quickly improve our competence.
Then there's commitment. Without commitment, developers will not see the
task through to the end. And, just as importantly, users need to see that
commitment. They need to know that the developers will be around, that
they are serious, that they will respond to bugs, and that they will
continue to carry the code forward. That said, open source makes users
less dependent on the commitment of others. When a proprietary software
vendor abandons a body of code, there is nothing the users can do about
it. Open source software can be picked up and carried forward by others.
Finally, there is the matter of focus. Without focus, we will lose; there
are simply too many distractions which can get in the way.
So how does the community do in these areas? We have visionaries, though
Dirk would like to see more of them who are willing to go further off the
beaten path. For competence, Dirk suggests downloading a random SourceForge
project and looking at the code. That, he says, will make one question
whether the open source
community possesses any competence at all. Commitment, too, is on display
at SourceForge - most projects there are inactive and going nowhere.
focus, he says, is really hard.
As a result, open source projects are highly susceptible to the 80/20
problem. The first 80% of the work is fun. But the task of actually
finishing the job is less so, so it often doesn't happen. So we have a
surfeit of 80%-done programs which have since been abandoned. We have, he
says, 55 bad spreadsheets out there when we could have three really good
ones. If we could stick to the projects we have, rather than yielding to
the temptation to start some new, shiny project, we would be in much better
Another example is the nearly 300 active distribution projects out there;
it would be better to have fewer choices which were more complete. Given
that, one might ask why Dirk's group went off and created Moblin - yet
another new distribution. His answer (to his own question) was that they
studied the available distributions and couldn't find one which they
thought they could carry forward to a full implementation of the vision
they had for Moblin. They needed to start anew, he said, to be able to
commit to reaching the end.
In conclusion, Dirk says, the recipe for standing out is relatively
straightforward: listen to the users, implement the whole vision, and go
someplace where others have not been.
Comments (41 posted)
The traditional Golden Penguin Bowl made a reappearance in a new venue at
LinuxCon on September 23. Gracious host
Jeremy Allison led the Nerds (Jono Bacon, Joe Brockmeier,
and Matt Domsch) in their victorious trivia battle against the Geeks (Greg
Kroah-Hartman, Ted Ts'o, and Chris Wright). It was a grueling event
requiring detailed knowledge of Arthur C. Clarke books, bad science fiction
movies, archaic architectures, Rick Astley lyrics, and remote-control
helicopter piloting. Here's a few photos from the event.
||Our host, Jeremy Allison
||The Nerds: Jono Bacon, Joe Brockmeier, and Matt Domsch
||The Geeks: Greg Kroah-Hartman, Ted Ts'o, and Chris Wright
||The crowd gets ruthlessly rickrolled by the Nerds and
||Chris Wright takes the controls; Ted Ts'o does his
best to stay out of the way.
||We didn't need all those parts anyway, right?
||Matt Domsch achieves liftoff.
Comments (3 posted)
On September 8, GPS device maker and mapping service provider TomTom pulled back the curtain on what it
hopes will become an industry-wide standard for location referencing and
dynamic route guidance. OpenLR, as it is known, is
designed to allow heterogeneous applications and services to exchange
location information in a compact, map-agnostic manner, which would ease
the burden of interoperability between Web map services, car navigation
devices, and other content systems that provide location-sensitive data such as
public safety warnings. TomTom said it wants OpenLR to be a royalty-free,
open specification, with a GPLv2-licensed encoder and decoder that will
The company has long used Linux and open source software in its hardware
products, which led to the famous patent lawsuit with Microsoft in
of 2009, over the VFAT filesystem. TomTom counter-sued Microsoft for
patent infringement, and the two companies settled out-of-court in March.
Despite its history with the open source community and development model,
OpenLR is TomTom's first attempt at launching a completely new open source
project of its own.
OpenLR bird's eye view
The problem OpenLR is designed to solve is rapid exchange of
location-relevant content between independent data providers, aggregators,
and end-user devices. OpenLR is not a geographic coordinate system (such
Geodetic System 84 (WGS 84)) or a markup language akin to KML or GPX. Rather,
OpenLR focuses on encoding location reference points (LRPs) using a
combination of coordinates and attributes such as functional road
class (FRC) and form of way (FOW) that describe the LRP in terms of its
physical attributes. Thus, an application using a map from a web-based
mapping service and directions from a GPS device can decode an LRP using
multiple factors and determine that it is the same location, even if they
use different map formats or disagree slightly.
In spite of the name "location reference point," as it is defined by
OpenLR, an LRP is more like what a mathematician might call a directed
graph edge: it has a start and end node, a bearing (compass direction), and
a length. This evidences OpenLR's underlying goal of describing travel
rather than precisely pinpointing stationary objects, but the terminology
could still be confusing for newcomers. FRC and FOW likewise focus the
attention on roads; FRC is defined as a number from FRC 0 ("main road"), to
FRC 1 ("first class road") all the way down to FRC 7 ("other road"). FOW
describes the physical type of road: motorway, roundabout, traffic square,
and so on.
The primary use case TomTom outlines for OpenLR is to describe "line
locations," which it defines as the concatenation of shortest paths
covering a set of LRPs. OpenLR itself does not calculate the shortest or
best path between a start LRP and end LRP; it merely provides a way for the
software to encode it for exchange in a bandwidth-friendly way. OpenLR is
not concerned with other map elements found along the way, such as
geographical features or points of interest (POIs).
Routing between selected locations is arguably the easiest scenario to
imagine; a device could request a route between two points and receive
directions back from a remote server as OpenLR data.
In addition, TomTom describes several cases where OpenLR might be used
to propagate other information useful to travelers, such as traffic
congestion data, public safety warnings, and even cooperative
vehicle-to-vehicle communication — all of which share the same need
for shortest-path routing information — plus applications useful to
municipalities such as real-time urban traffic management and toll-road
Introduction [PDF] says that OpenLR is designed to be map-agnostic
(meaning that OpenLR data is independent of both the map vendor and map
version), communication-channel independent (so it can be transmitted just
as easily by radio broadcast or over an IP network), and encoder
independent (so that any device, application, or service can unambiguously
decode the information sent by any other). The company has posted a more
detailed description of the OpenLR data format in a white
paper [PDF] available on its web site, including the byte-oriented stream
format and details about how to specify each component, from coordinates
(in WGS 84) to bearings and distances.
In its presentation, the company
explains the value of releasing OpenLR as an open standard — better
buy-in from key industry stakeholders, security against intellectual
property threats, and flexibility to expand and enhance the standard in the
direction chosen by the community. TomTom has filed for patent on the core
concept in OpenLR, but says that it will publish the
method used in the patent in its GPL-licensed encoder and decoder
implementation. The documentation itself is published under the Creative
Commons CC-BY license.
TomTom explains in the presentation that it chose the GPLv2 for
OpenLR's license in order to protect free implementations from patent
attack, noting that commercial services can still deploy the software. It
also says that the license to use OpenLR will include a non-assertion
clause. Complete details are provided in a separate license
Although TomTom says it will take the leadership and maintenance role in
OpenLR's development, the white paper and presentation both assert that the
company wants and expects the open source community to participate in
expanding OpenLR, including the coverage of different types of data (such
as Points and Areas), support for different formatting option such as XML,
integration with GPS and Galileo
positioning systems, and integration with the Transport Protocol Experts
Group (TPEG) traffic and travel information standard.
The race is on
The core data covered in OpenLR's route-and-traffic exchange usage
scenario can also be expressed in other, existing formats. The most
widely-known is Radio Data
System Traffic Message Channel (RDS-TMC), a format broadcast in a data
sideband of standard FM radio transmissions. RDS-TMC is widely deployed in
just a few countries, notably Germany, though it is available around
Western Europe and North America. RDS-TMC traffic data itself can
originate from a number of sources, including government-deployed road
sensors, and the format itself is published.
Nevertheless, using RDS-TMC is problematic — particularly for free
software — because it encodes the actual locations referenced via a
copyrighted data set, one which is limited in size and not easily updated
or corrected. A system similar in scope called AGORA-C is proprietary and
commercial, relying on licensing and royalty collection, which has led to
uncertain commitment from industry players. The TPEG format TomTom alluded
to it its presentation is open, but TomTom regards its current
location-referencing subsystem (TPEG-Loc) as unsuitable because of a lack
of standardized encoding rules.
The market for location-referencing is large; free routing services from
the likes of Google and Yahoo do not bring in any revenue, but in-car
navigation systems (both built-in and aftermarket) are reportedly a huge
and still-growing business. TomTom itself sells navigation software for
platforms like the iPhone, and fee-based services for drivers to avoid
speed traps and other road hazards. TomTom also owns map maker Tele Atlas,
which it acquired in 2007.
Competition between TomTom and mapping rivals like Garmin and DeLorme in
this space is fierce; the financial stakes are high and the number of
players is low. That is a situation which free software advocates
recognize has prompted the strategic release of a core technology as open
source many times before. OpenLR certainly meets a need in the navigation
stack; open projects like OpenStreetMap cannot use
alternative systems such as RDS-TMC or AGORA-C because of their licensing.
Nevertheless, OpenLR's openness is no silver bullet; for it to make a
substantial impact it will still have to be adopted by multiple industry
players, including traffic data providers.
Of course, an active show of participation on the standard from the open
source and open standards communities could go a long way in making that
happen. TomTom is expected to present about OpenLR this week at the World Congress on Intelligent
Transport Systems. The reaction there will say a lot about the
industry's take on the technology. For the open source community's
reaction, one will probably have to wait for the still-to-come source code
Comments (3 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: LinuxCon: Secure virtualization with sVirt; New vulnerabilities in apache, bugzilla, drupal, webkit,...
- Kernel: 2.6.32 merge window, part 2; Ask a kernel developer; Log-structured file systems.
- Distributions: openSUSE Conference: an interview with Joe Brockmeier; new releases from DragonFly BSD, Mandriva, Puppy, Ubuntu Karmic, and Ubuntu Privacy Remix; Interview with Martin Maurer; Ubuntu Karmic review.
- Development: The Orocos Project - an open-source robotics library, KDE's Project Silk, new versions of gmpc, PulseAudio, MySQL, SQLObject, BusyBox, RunPON, SPTK, TriSano, Hydrogen, QMidiRoute, Gnash, BleachBit, Rakudo Perl 6, PHP, GIT.
- Announcements: Citrix joins LF, free software and German elections, GPL upheld in France, LiMo white paper, CISSE cfp, LCA miniconf cfp, Enterprise LAMP Summit, Qt Dev Days, LWN T-shirts.