OSDL Seeks to Curb Legal Pitfalls With Patent Commons

The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) today launched an online patent commons reference library, the foundation of its Patent Commons Project. The Project’s goal is to provide greater confidence for developers and customers of open-source software.

PatentCommons.org hosts searchable databases containing more than 500 patents pledged and more than a dozen technical standards supported by patent pledges and covenants. The library is freely available to developers, users and vendors to allow access to information about patents and technology pledges benefiting open-source software and standards.

“The OSDL Patent Commons Project is an important first step in helping customers, vendors and the development community understand the different commitments that have been made and how they work to reduce the chances of patent litigation,” said Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL. “The Project is focused on documenting the growing number of pledges and other legal solutions directed at the software patent issue, so that developers can innovate and collaborate as free as possible from litigation.”

The Scope of Patent Commons

The Patent Commons Project is the OSDL’s recognition that institutions, companies, and inventors want to formally signal to the open-source software industry and community that software patents they hold are not a threat to the development, distribution or use of open-source software or open standards.

Patent pledges and covenants — legally enforceable promises not to enforce patents under certain terms and conditions — eliminate the need for individual agreements and simplify the process by which access to patented technology can be granted.

The OSDL figured cataloging patent pledges and covenants in a central location would facilitate their use by the development community and others, reduce the number of issued software patents that are a threat to open-source and open standards, and document the boundaries of the “common area.”

Wide-Spread Community Support

Specifically, the OSDL said the Patent Commons Web site will catalog existing patent commitments from companies and individuals who want to retain ownership of their patents, and will provide information about different types of pledges and covenants and how they work.

In the coming months, OSDL said the site will expand to include other legal solutions that benefit the open-source community, including open-source licenses, indemnification programs and information for organizations and individuals who wish to contribute to the commons.

The OSDL Patent Commons Project has already rallied the support of many industry leaders, including CA, IBM, Intel, Novell, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems. OSDL said it welcomes other IT vendors, corporations, organizations, government agencies and individuals to participate.

Proceed With Caution

Michael Graham, intellectual property attorney and partner with Marshall, Gerstein & Borun, a Chicago-based IP-specialty law firm, told LinuxInsider that those who use Patent Commons should proceed with caution.

Graham said some searchable form of the “Patent Commons” is becoming increasingly necessary as companies with software patent portfolios explore various types of involvement in open-source software.

But he also said this announcement serves as a reminder how increasingly difficult it will become to determine what is truly open-source code, and avoid infringement or inadvertent dedication of software to open-source in the future.

“Although one can search for particular companies’ statements and pledges, it remains virtually impossible to determine how these interact,” Graham said. “Thus, far from providing increased confidence to companies entering the open-source realm, the ‘Patent Commons’ should give companies pause before committing to an OSS model.”

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