Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Sun opens up 1,673 Solaris patents under CDDL agreement

On January 25, 2005, Sun said that it is going to give open source developers who get involved in the new open source Solaris project free access to 1,673 active Solaris-related patents that it holds.

By "free access", Sun means that the 1,673 patents will only be available to open source developers who are working on OpenSolaris under the company's newly described Common Development and Distribution License or CDDL (pronounced cuddle). CDDL forbids blending Solaris with Linux or any GPL code.

Under the new Mozilla-derived CDDL license, which just got approved by the Open Source Initiative, a sine qua non for any open source project, all modifications to the Solaris code have to be returned to the community. However, mixtures of OpenSolaris and other open source or proprietary code don't have to be, making it more commercial than Linux and the GPL.

Sun CEO Scott McNealy described the 1,600 patents as "patent indemnification" and a "non-trivial asset" of the company. He suggested that it took a bit of persuading to convince Sun's board to let the company open up the patents to open source developers.

from Maureen O'Gara

***UPDATE. from Linuxworld, January 29, 2005

"The announcement was so broad in comparison to the related legal documents, that serious questions now exist regarding what rights the public has to Sun's patents," wrote Daniel Ravicher yesterday - executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, a not-for-profit legal services organization working to protect the public from what it calls "the harms caused by the patent system" - in an Open Letter to Sun's Scott McNealy.
"Free and open source software developers," PUBPAT said in its letter, "must have clear answers to these questions so that they can understand what rights they have to Sun's patents."

PUBPAT laid out several questions resulting from Sun's patent grant, including which license must be used for software to be safe from Sun's patents and whether Sun has waived rights to make patent claims against software written by anyone other than Sun. There was also a question about Sun's relationship with Microsoft, and how it may impact patents and the open source community.

"In Sun's announcement," added Ravicher, "they make sweeping statements about how the open source community will immediately gain access to 1,600 active Sun patents for operating systems, but the legal nitty-gritty behind the announcement shows that Sun has retained the right to aim its entire patent portfolio at GNU/Linux or any other free and open source operating system, except, of course, for their soon to be released version of Solaris."

"Developers need to be very careful about the details here," he continued, "and not be misled into thinking Sun has given them more than it actually has."

To open source apostle Bruce Perens, of course, the whole issue is moot since he urges developers to steer clear of both MS and Sun completely.

"If you are satisfied with the Sun or MS product, it might not matter," Perens wrote, in a Slashdot discussion. "But the fastest developing OS technology today, the one most likely to bring you future improvements, is not the one from Sun or MS, it's Linux and the vast collection of Open Source that rides on top of it."

"Everything we've heard about Sun's strategy so far seems to be geared to act as a "spoiler" rather than a partner in the Open Source community," Perens added. "The most egregious part is the implicit threat: we've got 1600 patents held over your head, Linux users, and we've got an agreement with Microsoft about them..." he continued.

UPDATE from Richard Stallman on ZDNet:

Recently Sun made an announcement that superficially seems similar. It said that Sun had given us "free access to Sun OpenSolaris related patents under the Common Development and Distribution License." But those words do not really make sense. The CDDL is a licence for the copyright on software, not a policy for licensing patents. It applies to specific code and nothing else. (Copyright and patents have essentially nothing in common in the requirements they impose on the public.)

So what has really happened here? Reading the announcement clearly, I think that it doesn't announce anything at all. It simply describes, in a different and grandiose way, the previously announced release of the Solaris source code as free software under Sun's idiosyncratic license, the CDDL. Outside Solaris, few or no free software packages use that licence -- and Sun has not said it won't sue us for implementing the same techniques in our own free software.
Perhaps Sun will eventually give substance to its words, and make this step a real one like IBM's. Perhaps some other large companies will take similar steps. Would this make free software safe from the danger of software patents? Would the problem of software patents be solved? Not on your life. Neither one.



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