Much of this week's LWN front page has to do with software patents, and how
to respond to them. Doubtless some people are tired of the topic, but it
remains important. The shape of our free software systems in the future
will, unfortunately, be much affected by software patents. It is important
that we figure out how to deal with them.
Comments (3 posted)
Software companies worry about software patents; an infringement suit can,
after all, ruin your whole day.
Red Hat has decided that the best way to deal with the problem of software
patents is to get into the game. So, the company has applied for (at least)
Both of these techniques show Ingo Molnar as the inventor. And where might
one find the patented technology?
embodiments of the present invention described are implemented in a
computing platform based on the computer operating system commonly known as
'Linux' that is available as open source directly over the Internet. Linux
is also available through various vendors who provide service and support
for the Linux operating system. Among these vendors are Red Hat, Inc., of
Research Triangle Park, N.C., the assignee of the present
(This news was originally reported (in Italian) on FreeGo).
After letting people worry over the holiday weekend, Red Hat issued a statement of
position on software patents. According to that statement, Red Hat's
intent is defensive:
Red Hat has consistently taken the position that software patents
generally impede innovation in software development and that
software patents are inconsistent with open source/free
software.... At the same time, we are forced to live in the world
as it is, and that world currently permits software patents. A
relatively small number of very large companies have amassed large
numbers of software patents. We believe such massive software
patent portfolios are ripe for misuse because of the questionable
nature of many software patents generally and because of the high
cost of patent litigation. One defense against such misuse is to
develop a corresponding portfolio of software patents for defensive
purposes. Many software companies, both open source and
proprietary, pursue this strategy.
Red Hat, too, has decided to pursue that strategy; it has joined the
software patent arms race by arming itself.
What do these patents mean for free software? According to Red Hat's
position, not much; the statement includes a promise to not enforce any
patent claims against software using an "approved" open source license.
So the free software community can relax; Red Hat is simply trying to
protect itself from patent suits and will not be exploiting
the dark side of software patents.
Not so fast. The situation, unfortunately, is not quite that simple.
There are a couple of problems with Red Hat's position that should be kept
The first of these problems is that a promise on Red Hat's web site only
means so much. It is not an enforceable contract that anybody can count
on; Red Hat can change its position at any time. A court may take the
published promise into account in a future case, but that promise may not
keep such a case from happening in the first place. Red Hat, under its
current management, seems unlikely to change its approach to patents - the
posted promise is undoubtedly sincere. But corporate management and
ownership can change quickly - and, with them, posted patent policies.
More disturbing in the short term, however, is Red Hat's list of "approved"
licenses. It includes the GPL, the IBM Public License, the Common Public
License, the Q Public License, and "any open source license granted by
Red Hat." A whole class of licenses, including the LGPL and, crucially,
the BSD license, has been excluded from Red Hat's patent promise.
In other words, the various versions of BSD Unix are not welcome to use Red
Hat's patented technology. In fact, they can be sued for infringement if
they do use that technology. The license wars, it seems, are still being
waged, and Red Hat has just launched a new offensive. This is a move which
will encourage division in the free software community, to say the least.
The cynical among us could even see this policy as a strike by Red Hat
against a whole class of competing free operating systems. That is almost
certainly not the case: Red Hat is just trying to ensure that its patent
weapons can actually be used. As the company told us:
We elected to specifically exclude licenses that don't expressly
prohibit open source code from being incorporated into proprietary
code. Absent that stance, the patents would be of little benefit.
It's not worth it. Red Hat ships a great deal of software under licenses
which, it seems, are now too free: consider the X window system or
OpenSSH, for starters. There has been a great deal of exchange of ideas
between Linux and *BSD; the FreeBSD VM subsystem, for example, has long
been seen as an inspiration by at least some Linux kernel hackers. We have
all benefitted from the OpenBSD security auditing work. Red Hat, in the
name of patent defense, is cutting off the flow of ideas in one direction.
That is not how free software is supposed to work. Red Hat should find a
way to deal with software patents that does not alienate a large and
valuable part of the free software community.
As a starting point, why not contribute these new patents (and the various
gcc patents said to have been originally obtained by Cygnus) to a free
software "patent pool"? The patents would be licensed for any use as long
as the licensee does not sue any company alleging patent infringement by
any free software used or distributed by that company. If it is absolutely
necessary to dirty one's hands with software patents, this approach seems
more constructive and beneficial to the community.
Comments (23 posted)
The current systems for performing hard real-time tasks with Linux
) take the same approach:
use a real-time kernel at the lowest level of the system, and run the
general purpose kernel (i.e. Linux) as the lowest-priority task. This
technique has been patented by Victor Yodaiken, and the patent has been licensed
to the community
under terms similar to those used by Red Hat: as long
as your work is licensed under the GPL, you can use the patented
technology without paying royalties.
This patent and its license have been the subject of endless controversy in
the free software community. In particular, developers and users of RTAI
have always felt a little nervous, especially when the
RTAI core was licensed under the LGPL. The recent relicensing of the RTAI core was
undertaken to be sure of compliance with the patent license, but not
everybody has been satisfied. In particular, people who wish to run or
distribute proprietary systems using RTAI have been unsure of their
An obvious solution, one might think, would be to not use the patented
technology; until recently, however, alternatives have been somewhat
scarce. That situation may have changed, however, as the result of the announcement of the upcoming first release
ADEOS is, essentially, a small "nanokernel" which takes charge of low-level
hardware resources (interrupts in particular). Any number of higher level
operating systems can run in parallel on top of ADEOS; they run
independently and know little of each other. ADEOS implements an
abstraction called an "interrupt pipeline," which is essentially an ordered
list of systems which are interested in a particular interrupt. Real-time
systems put themselves at the head of the list, and are thus able to
respond quickly to interrupts. General purpose systems can handle any
interrupts which the real-time systems allow to pass down the pipeline.
The idea of running multiple operating systems over a small, low-level
kernel is not particularly new; IBM has been doing it for decades. It is
interesting, however, in that the ADEOS developers claim that it is
suffiently different from the RTLinux approach that it is not covered by
the patent. The reality of the situation, however, may not be determined
until a fair number of lawyers have been involved.
The RTAI project plans to move over to ADEOS and thus, with luck, free
itself of patent worries. Whether RTAI will be able to rid itself of the
persistent claims that it is a derivative of RTLinux could be another
story. RTLinux supporters will point out strong similarities between a
number of source files in the two projects. If RTAI really used RTLinux
code at the beginning, and released that code under a different license
(even if that license was the LGPL), the project has, in theory, lost its
rights to use that code. Nobody has seriously pursued a GPL infringement
claim against RTAI, but, as long as the allegations persist, such an action
is a possibility.
Meanwhile, ADEOS embodies a different approach to dealing with software
patents: find a way to work around them. From the press release:
Often a piece of Free Software, into which many people have
invested years of work, can be turned into non-free software by a
patent for one simple but essential calculation rule. Our example
shows that the developers need not always give up. Sometimes, by
trying very hard, an alternative calculation rule that does the
work and is not completely useless can be found. Developers should
not shy [from] the effort that this takes, because even if the patent
owner offers a license on friendly terms, usually the project will
be restricted in some way or other and the intentions of the
developers to create real Free Software will be betrayed.
This approach has been taken with other patents: using JPEG and PNG files
to get around the GIF patent, and Ogg Vorbis as an alternative to MP3, for
example. As software patents proliferate in the U.S., however (and
possibly spread to Europe), it will get always harder to dodge them all.
And tiresome as well. Software patents remain a threat to free software.
(See also: a more detailed, technical
description of how ADEOS works.)
Comments (none posted)
After a suitable period of pre-launch hinting, the UnitedLinux
initiative sent out a
announcing its existence. A press release is about all
there is, at the moment; the realization of the goals behind United Linux
will take a little longer.
UnitedLinux is a joint venture between Caldera, Conectiva, SuSE and
Turbolinux. Essentially, the four will be combining much of their Linux
distribution development operation. The advantages of this combination are
fairly clear: much duplicated work can be eliminated, and the companies
will have at their disposal a single base distribution which is standards
compliant and uniform. The companies' four distributions have all lacked
sufficient market share to inspire software vendors to target them. One,
larger distribution, it is hoped, will be more successful at attracting the
independent software vendors of the world.
An alpha release of UnitedLinux, apparently based most heavily on SuSE's
distribution, is due in the near future, with the general release happening
in the fourth quarter of this year. Each distributor will then add its own
special offerings and sell the result under its own brand. Interestingly,
release plans page mentions KDE 3.0, but says nothing about
GNOME. Several "installation languages" will be supported.
The biggest controversy over UnitedLinux would appear to be whether it will
be available as a free download. The initial statements from the group
have been mixed. We will have to wait and see on that one. A more
worthwhile question might be: will UnitedLinux expose its development
version the way Mandrake, Debian, and Red Hat (sort of) do? Inviting
outsiders into the development process is a far more convincing sign of
openness than distributing free binaries.
The other open question, of course, is: what other companies might join? An
invitation has been extended to Red Hat, but nobody really expects that
company to want to be a part of UnitedLinux. MandrakeSoft is a more
interesting possibility; it is by far the largest other distributor which
is not currently a part of the group. Thus far, MandrakeSoft has been
awfully quiet about UnitedLinux.
If UnitedLinux lives up to its promise, it could become the platform upon
which a new generation of distributions can grow. Doing UnitedLinux right,
however, will require keeping both the free software community and the
commercial world happy. This goal should be achievable; we wish this group
Comments (1 posted)
Back in August, 1998, LWN made a major site change: we went from the
"everything on one big page" format to the multi-page format that is still
used for the weekly edition. We got over 100 complaints about that change
- people liked things the old way. So we restored the "one big page" as an
option, and it is still used by a (declining) number of LWN readers.
As you can see, LWN has changed format again; see our introductory posting for a description of
what has changed. We'll say here, however, that what has not
changed is LWN's content. The presentation is different, and a number of
new capabilities have been added, but our writing remains as always.
By the standards of 1998, the reaction to this change has been relatively
muted. Some people like the new site, others do not, but there has been no
avalanche of complaints. Which is fine with us. We are certainly
interested in hearing from our readers (at email@example.com) about ways we could improve the
new site; we do request, however, that commenters be specific about what
they do or do not like. We try to respond to specific complaints, but
there's not much that we can do with a message that just says "I hate the
There are certainly some rough edges on the new site. Bear with us, and
we'll do our best to straighten them out. Meanwhile, please check out the
new features, and, we hope, enjoy the new LWN experience.
(Note that people who want to see something that resembles the old site can bookmark lwn.net/current, which always gives the current weekly edition, or lwn.net/current/bigpage, which is the "one big page" format).
Comments (20 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: US TurboLinux Security Severely Out of Date; Fragroute contaminated; OpenSSH 3.2.3; Ethereal 0.9.4 and lots of vulnerabilities and resources.
- Kernel: Block queue plugging; splitting the stack; kbuild 2.5; negative dentries; /dev/port
- Distributions: The AGNULA project; Scyld Beowolf.
- Development: Mozilla 1.0, OpenSSH 3.2.3, gFTP 2.0.12, Omni 0.7.0, mnoGoSearch 3.2.5,
new mod_perls, WaveSurfer 1.4.1, KDE 3.0.1, AbiWord 1.0.2,
LyX 1.2.0, Apocalypse 5, perl 5.8.0 RC 1, Jext 3.1pre4.
- Commerce: Coalition Asks European Parliament to Vote Against Data Retention; SOT, MySQL and EFFI Team up to Oppose Software Patents.
- Press: Open Source at the Pentagon, United Linux, German Government and Linux.
- Announcements: Open Source Health Care Alliance, Boston GNOME Summit, German Zope Users Group
- Letters: Software liability, GNU/Linux