One way to reduce the number of software patents that are issued is to
document interesting ideas before someone locks them up. Defensive
publications are a way to express those ideas in an
accessible form for patent examiners so that they will be aware of
prior art during the application process. Open Invention Network (OIN) chief
operating officer Raffi Gostanian came to Akademy in Tallinn, Estonia to
describe defensive publications, explain how OIN can help in the process of
creating them, and to encourage KDE developers to start filing them.
OIN has a broad mandate to create a patent "no-fly zone" around Linux,
Gostanian said. It does that by purchasing patents which can be used by
members. It entices companies to join by having interesting patents
available. OIN focuses on particular segments of the market, like finance or
automotive, to put together groups of patents in those areas. Companies
can join OIN if they promise not to use their patents against Linux.
As part of the Linux Defenders
project, OIN has also worked on various efforts to invalidate patents either
before or after they issued (through the Peer to Patent projects). That
depends on finding prior art that shows the idea was not new at the time of
the application. Defensive publications are a way to codify ideas from the
free and open source software world that could be used to reject patent
Defensive publications don't have to be about a program or something that
has been implemented, they could just be an idea that someone has (or has
had). Linux Defenders will publish the defensive publications in a database
that can be searched by patent examiners (on ip.com) so that patent applications will be
stopped from proceeding, he said.
There have been lots of patent suits already, and there will be more.
Typically, it is not a single patent that is used in lawsuits, but a
cluster of related patents. There are entities out there antagonistic
toward Linux, "we know that", Gostanian said. It is difficult for some to
see how they can "compete with free", so they turn to the court system.
One way to try to combat open source is to claim that "you get what you pay
for", but Android serves as a counterexample, which is
part of why it attracts so much lawsuit attention.
Gostanian pointed to the lawsuit filed by Microsoft against Barnes &
Noble for its Android-based Nook tablet as an example of the tactics used.
There was a "war of words" between the companies about the suit, but in the
end, Barnes & Noble ended up in a relationship with Microsoft. He is
certain that the next Nook will not be running Android, which shows that
sometimes suits are filed to force outcomes other than one side paying
Another example he cited was Microsoft's FAT patent (really a patent on
a way to have long file names in VFAT), which was applied for in 1996 and
granted in 1998. It went through the reexamination process, which upheld
the patent; so did several courts, which emboldened Microsoft, who went on
to use it for patent aggression.
But, more recently, an administrative law
judge for the US International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled that the patent
is invalid based on a 1992
post by Linus Torvalds. In that note to comp.os.minix, Torvalds
essentially describes the patented technique as an idea for the Minix
It was not implemented, but just the description of the idea was enough for
Had the patent examiner known of that, it is likely the patent would not
have been granted. In that case, there would have been "less FUD around
Linux" and the lawsuits would not have happened, Gostanian said.
Attacking the root cause
When you have a problem—bad software patents being issued for
example—you want to look for a root cause. In this case, he asked, is
the real problem that people are filing for junk patents? That is
sometimes true, but in most cases people think they are describing
It takes three or four years after an application is filed before a patent
looks at it; when they do, they have around eight hours to consider the
patent. That is the total amount of time they can spend, which includes
some amount of back and forth with the filer. There are things they rely
on to try to find prior art, but that generally does not include scientific
publications, technical reports, conference proceedings or
talks, blog postings, mailing lists, and so on. The examiners don't have a
lot of time, and it would be difficult for them to find important prior art
in that time. The idea behind defensive publications is to make it easier
for them to do their job, Gostanian said.
Defensive publications are "in a sense" the "anti-patent", he said. By
taking various concepts and ideas that have already been "invented" and
making them easier to find, those ideas can get in front of the examiners
during the application process. Linux Defenders will be working with teams
or individuals to help them prepare defensive publications to be filed at
ip.com. The filing cost will be picked up by Linux Defenders as well. The
idea is that it is easier (and cheaper) to invalidate a patent before it is
granted rather than doing so once it has been.
Unlike patents, defensive publications are fairly simple documents.
Typically one or two pages of text is all that is required, along with a
figure that describes the interaction between the components. It "could
literally take two hours" to create one, he said. The short length is
helpful to the examiners who don't want to wade through a long
description. Defensive publications can certainly be longer than a page or
two, but they don't need to be, he said.
Gostanian encouraged anyone in the audience with an "idea that you think is
cool" or one that they are enthusiastic about to consider defensive
publication. It doesn't matter if the idea has ever been implemented, and
additional defensive publications can be made on newer iterations of the
idea, each of which has the potential to stop patents.
It costs nothing to do a defensive publication as OIN will pay for filing
those that come in via Linux Defenders. In addition, Linux Defenders will
review and assist in writing the document. "Whatever's necessary, we'll
do", Gostanian said, to assist in getting more defensive publications
Creating defensive publications is something concrete that developers or
projects can do to help fight
bad patents. Each submission to ip.com gets a public number assigned to it
that can be used in resumes or CVs to publicize one's involvement, though
defensive publications can also be submitted anonymously as well. While
there are lots of different opinions about the patent system, it isn't
going away anytime soon—if ever—so this is one thing that can
be done to reduce patent problems in the interim.
There are tens of thousands of defensive publications in existence already,
Gostanian said in answer to a question from the audience, though most have
not come via OIN. This is the first conference he has spoken at to
publicize the effort, though he will be speaking at GUADEC and other team
members will be attending COSCUP
to help bring the message to developers at
those events. While "tens of thousands" sounds big, he said, they are
scattered around in many different technical fields. Linux Defenders would
like to see a more concentrated effort in the areas surrounding Linux and open
source, eventually resulting in tens of thousands being filed via the
[ The author would like to thank KDE e.V. for travel assistance to Tallinn
for Akademy. ]
Comments (21 posted)
Creating an open device is a difficult challenge; the software is (mostly)
there, but the hardware is a different story. Aaron Seigo has been working
on the Vivaldi tablet as part of the Make Play Live effort and reported on
some of the hurdles that have been encountered trying to produce the device
at Akademy. There are lots of
pieces that go into such a device, so finding a combination that
works and can be sold is a non-trivial task.
touch-enabled version of KDE's Plasma environment—came out of a discussion that various people working on
Plasma had about the
technology and asking "where do we go from here?", Seigo said. KDE has a
desktop suite, with office, email, and many other applications, but "is that
all we want to do?". To he and others, it felt like KDE was treading
water, but the discussions made it clear that some in the project were not
happy with just that.
He believes very strongly in freedom and technology, and he started looking
beyond the desktop and laptops where KDE has traditionally been focused.
When you look at mobile devices, set top boxes, and other systems like those,
you don't see the freedom and openness that we have come to expect. There
is an inherent need for some humans to hack, but devices are
"increasingly not places where you can hack, unless Apple says you can".
There is this idea that a "tablet is a tablet, a laptop is a laptop", he
said, but that is "increasingly silly". There is a continuum of devices,
without sharp divisions between them. We have started to see others
picking up on that, and releasing hybrid devices recently, like a media
center that is controlled by a tablet or phone, tablets with keyboards, and
So, Plasma Active arose out of Plasma Netbook and Plasma Desktop. It
provides one KDE and Qt-based technology that can be used across all kinds
of devices. The difference between Plasma Active and the netbook/desktop
versions is 10-15,000 lines of code—out of a code base of some
third-of-a-million lines. So there are "tiny differences" between the two,
and things written for one will work on the other. This is a "compelling
reason" to use Plasma Active on all these different kinds of devices, Seigo said.
Android: best friend and worst enemy
Seigo cited Android as the "best friend and worst enemy of open devices".
It uses the Linux kernel, and it is great that there are so many devices
out there running Linux. But Google does no GPL enforcement, which results
in mostly binary-only devices. For device manufacturers, getting Android
to boot is the end goal so that the device can be sold. Once they can
deliver a working binary kernel to their customers, they are done.
We are dealing with cultural and business barriers when trying to deliver
open devices, he said. All the manufacturing for these devices is in
China, increasingly the design is being done there as well. To build
open devices, you must work with the cultures of Asia, but most KDE
developers are based in Europe or North America and are not familiar with
In addition, the manufacturers are "all about volume" and, at least so far,
open devices are not selling in quantities that make them interesting. He
is not just reporting these problems "because it sucks", he said, but
because "I think there are things we can do about it together".
He asked: Can we overcome these problems? His experience shows that it is
"a very big mountain to climb", but it is something that the community has
to take on itself. These problems are not something that big companies are
in, so "we need to take our destiny in our own hands".
From an implementation standpoint, there are three pieces of software that
need to work well together. The kernel, which needs a user space that
works with it, and a "human experience" on top of that. Seigo uses the term "human experience" rather than "user experience"
because "humans are not users", he said.
As a community, KDE
does the human experience part, and there are folks in the project with
some experience in the other two. Seigo asked how many in the room had
written a kernel module and got a few raised hands. "We need you guys", he
said, and asked that they bring their friends. These days, user space is
tightly coupled to the kernel, he said, so the two need to be in sync.
Plasma Active itself is ready to go to provide the human experience;
version 3 will be released in the next few months.
One recent addition is a "nice touch-friendly file manager", Seigo said,
and Plasma Active is more than just a desktop shell. It is enabling other
applications, like Calligra
and Marble, to work well on touch
addition, a recent two or three day effort turned Okular into a touch enabled
e-book reader using QML.
Lots of code has been taken from the desktop for Plasma Active, but there
are parts that will flow back to Plasma in the future as well. Many KDE
applications can be made touch-friendly relatively easily, he said, and
developers of any applications that might ever run on a tablet, phone, set top box,
etc. should be thinking about that. When he hears application developers
talking about separating the business logic from the presentation, that's a
sign things are headed in the right direction
Seigo and a partner started Make Play Live (MPL) to create "ethically correct
devices" that are hackable. A business ecosystem has also been built around it
to support the effort. The plan is to create a tablet called Vivaldi,
but there have been some problems along the way.
Seigo held up the tablet, noting that it was the second revision of the
hardware that was received from MPL's hardware partner. Using
that hardware, the company got 98% of the way there, he said, and were
demonstrating the device widely. It just needed a "little more polish"
before it was ready to ship. Then, the third revision of the hardware
The new hardware looked identical—on the outside—but was
"completely different" internally. MPL found out about the changes
after the fact, and was not able to provide input into the new
design. Because the volume of devices that MPL could promise to sell was
fairly low, the manufacturer had little interest in consulting or even
notifying the company about the changes.
The earlier revision had been running a modified Mer user space atop the Android kernel
distributed by the manufacturer, but that no longer works on the most
recent hardware revision. There is a "solution in the pipes" to that
problem, Seigo said, but that set Vivaldi back.
The device manufacturers don't really want to invest in Linux per
se, but want to focus on Android, which is a different thing.
In the Q&A session, Seigo further explained some of the problems that MPL
had run into. Unless it can promise a quarter of a million (or some other
six-digit number) of units, MPL won't be able to get any input into the
process. "Our order is a rounding error" on the total number of units the
device manufacturers are targeting. He certainly doesn't blame the
hardware companies as they are focused on their bottom line. It would be
great if MPL (or open devices in general) could rely on large companies to
take the baton and dangle that kind of volume in front of the
manufacturers, but that doesn't seem likely.
Part of the problem is that there is "little respect for the GPL" in Asia,
Seigo said. When you ask for the source to the kernel for a device, you
first get pointed at kernel.org. Once you make it clear that there is more
needed, you will get a tarball with "amazing stuff", some of which has
nothing to do with the device in question. Comparing that to what's
running on the device shows differences, so you have to ask: "Now can we
really get the source?". There is also often resistance from the hardware
to the whole idea
of getting the source as they think the company will go bankrupt if they
give it away. When setting out on this task, Seigo said that he had no
idea "how hard it would be to get GPL source" from the vendors.
The MPL partner network consists of nine companies so far who are
concentrating on various pieces of the problem, like human experience or
device integration. There is room for more hardware and software companies
in that network, he said. If some other company were to come out with a
an open device, he would see that as a success for the
project, even though it might be a competitor to Vivaldi.
The MPL philosophy is one of "human-centric experience" rather than the
"app-centric experience" offered by other mobile OS vendors (e.g. Google
and Apple). Vivaldi and other MPL devices are meant to be usable from
the outset and not require the purchase of a lot of apps. That
limits the "app store story" a bit, but it makes for a more compelling device.
When he puts a Vivaldi tablet into people's hands, they start immediately
talking about how they want to use it, Seigo said.
He noted that while tech pundits have written off the tablet market as a
two-horse race, they are not seeing the full picture because MPL devices
will not be competing in the same space. "If tech pundits were food
critics, they would be fired," he said. He likened the way pundits looked
at things to a food critic who said that French food is just great, so
"Italian food will never sell". Once devices start shipping, "we'll do just
fine", because MPL is not competing in the same space as iPad and Android.
When asked about where an interested person might be able to find paying
work on the MPL project, Seigo noted that some of the partners have been
employing people to work on it, as has his company, Coherent Theory LLC.
That model is not sustainable in the long term, but once devices start
shipping, there will be more money available for that kind of thing. There
are volunteers as well, of course; "not everything is done for
money", he said.
Enlisting aid from KDE developers and other interested people was one of the
themes of Seigo's talk. Much has been accomplished, but there is lots
still to be done. MPL needs "more people who care" to "join us and make
this a reality". He and others are committed to making open devices
available, with some help they can get there faster.
[ The author would like to thank KDE e.V. for travel assistance to Tallinn
for Akademy. ]
Comments (21 posted)
LWN prefers to report news from the Linux development community over news
about itself. But there have been some requests recently for a status
update. Beyond that, we have some important news to pass on to our
readers. So please bear with us for a brief exercise in journalistic
Toward the beginning of this year, we announced our desire to bring in
another author/editor with the goals of making the operation more
robust and, eventually, expanding our content mix. That process seemingly
came to an end with our announcement that Nathan Willis was joining the
staff at the end of April. That whole process has gone better than
expected, and LWN is better for it. But there is a part of that story that
we have not been able to tell until now.
We had a surprising number of strong candidates for the position at LWN.
In the end, it came down to two people, either of whom would have been an
outstanding addition to LWN's staff. After agonizing over the decision for
a while, we realized that the skills of the two candidates complemented
each other nicely and that what we really needed to do was to hire
both of them. Causing that to happen took a while — our second
candidate is a busy person who needed some time to make a change — but
things are finally falling into place.
Thus, we are pleased to announce that our other new editor will be
Michael Kerrisk. Michael describes himself this way:
Michael is a software engineer, writer, and trainer who started
using UNIX in 1987, and Linux in the late 1990s. Since 2004,
Michael has maintained the Linux man-pages
and has been one of its most prolific contributors. He
is also the author of "The Linux Programming Interface" (see Jake's review
is a New Zealander, based in Munich, Germany.
We have big plans for Michael; he'll be supplementing our kernel-oriented
coverage and helping us to expand it in a number of related areas
including, possibly, embedded systems and software development. Expect to
see his work showing up on LWN's pages later this month.
This move is a bit of a risk on everybody's part for the simple reason that
LWN's current cash flow
is not sufficient to carry two new editors. The good news is that we have
been able to set aside some reserves over the last couple of years, so we
have plenty of time in which to ramp things up and get back to a
sustainable operating condition. Getting there will definitely require
that we find ways to increase our subscriber base, though.
We have a number of ideas for how that might be achieved. An expanded and
broader content mix, we hope, will appeal to a wider range of readers.
LWN's "new site code" just celebrated its tenth anniversary; it's no secret
that it could use updating in any number of ways. We need to find
ways to provide additional value to the subscribers who keep us going.
There are some interesting related ideas that we wish to pursue, once time
allows. And we could maybe even try actively promoting the site rather
than just sort of hoping that readers will find and appreciate us.
Certainly something needs to be done. In the last two years, the number of
individual subscribers has leveled out and even declined slightly—not the
sort of trend we were hoping to see. Group subscriptions have been a
little more robust, fortunately. Special thanks are due to our "Supporter"
subscribers who exist in sufficient numbers to make a real difference.
Supporters: none of you have yet exercised your unique privilege to have
the beverage of your choice at LWN's expense at any conference where we are
present; we may yet find ourselves having to resort to sending you yet
another laptop bag instead.
If we have learned anything over the years, it's the nature of businesses
that something always needs to be done. It's a rare business that just
generates the money needed to sustain it without constant adjustments. It
has been almost exactly ten years since we posted The end of the road, wherein we explained our
conclusion that the time had come to shut LWN down. Things have improved a
lot since then. We are confident that, if we think and work hard toward
the creation of a site that brings more value to our readers, things will
continue to improve.
LWN's greatest strength is one of the best reader communities out there.
We do not thank you all anywhere near often enough. But we'll say it now:
thanks for your solid support for this site since its beginning in 1998; we
wouldn't be here without you. And we are very much looking forward to
making LWN better in the coming months—stay tuned!
Comments (102 posted)
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