Still smarting from criticism of its licensing deal with Microsoft, Novell has joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation's patent reform movement, in hopes of removing laws that stifle innovation.
Novell will join EFF's campaign to promote patent legislation that encourages innovation, and will join in lobbying governments and national and international organizations, according to a statement. The announcement followed harsh criticism of the company's licensing deal with Microsoft, most recently at the Open Source Business Conference.
In particular, Novell and EFF plan to appeal to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to take a global approach to patent reform. Novell will contribute to EFF's "Patent Busting" program, which was launched in 2004. That project tries to identify prior art that can knock down patents that impose heavy burdens on software developers and Internet users.
"EFF has long been at the forefront in addressing the key challenges of the digital age, including worldwide intellectual property issues," said EFF Executive Director Shari Steele. "The support of Novell – a company founded on the proprietary software development model but now strongly embracing the open source approach – will be a great boon to our efforts to rid the industry of innovation-killing patents. We hope Novell's example encourages other software vendors to join the effort."
Nat Friedman, chief open source technology and strategy officer at Novell, told InfoWorld that Novell hopes it will lend credence to the arguments EFF makes before governing bodies.
"EFF has really been a lone voice on this issue. If you bring us in as a corporate concern with more than 500 patents, saying the same thing, it may move us past the same old arguments to the point where these groups will take action," Friedman said.
Novell's news came on the tail of a contentious session at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in which Justin Steinman, Novell's director of marketing for Linux and open platform solutions, joined Sam Ramji, Microsoft's director of Linux Labs, and others to debate the pros and cons of the Microsoft-Novell collaboration and co-development deal that was announced in November.
Attendees at the show expressed frustration at the mixed messages coming from Microsoft and Novell in the wake of the agreement, especially warnings from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that Microsoft may assert more than 200 patents that it contends are being infringed on by other open source companies.
Steinman told InfoWorld that Novell timed the release with the conclusion of the panel discussion, which occurred in San Francisco. Friedman said that the deal with EFF was an offshoot of the same discussions internally that spawned the Microsoft deal.
"I think it's fair to say that we've been talking a lot about patents within Novell in the last twelve months. More than we have in the past," he said. Novell concluded that the patent system is broken and that patents are hobbling innovation and open standards, by putting companies on the defensive.
Patents, Friedman said, frequently are filed on fundamental concepts in computer science and on combinations of previous inventions. "There are bad software patents because they're overly broad. They cover things which are commonplace in the industry," he said.
Steinman and others defended Novell's deal with Microsoft, despite criticism, saying that the company was not conceding that it violated any patents, but merely trying to put its customers at ease. The deal, according to Steinman and Ramji, will be good for the open source movement in the long run.
"Microsoft was Novell's number 1 channel partner in Q1 of 2007," said Steinman. "This is a deal that put Linux into Walmart and Nationwide Bank," he said. This drew derision from some quarters: "I would be embarrassed to publicly admit my own sales team can't outsell Microsoft when it comes to Linux," said Infoworld blogger Matt Asay. "That's astonishingly pathetic."
In the meantime, Friedman urged other companies to also support EFF in its effort to shoot down suspicious patents.
"We think it would be wonderful if other companies would join EFF," he said. "The situation is everybody is threatened by software patents, not just us."
Novell has more than 500 patents itself but does not sue over them, Friedman said.
"We've never - in our entire history - we've never sued anyone over patents," he said.
"The US software industry existed for decades without software patents," said Friedman.
Possible outcomes of the EFF efforts are intellectual property systems or shorter patent lifetimes. Currently, patents can remain in effect for 17 to 20 years, Friedman said.
"That's a really long time in the software industry," he said.