Is Red Hat using patents to defend open source/free software?

by Steve Mallett

It was reported last week (May 24, 2002) that Red Hat has applied for some software patents. This surprised many since RedHat has come out publicly to condemn patents as “inconsistent with open source/free software” and to state that they “impede innovation in software development”. Hey, software patents suck.

While this action raised some eyebrows and left some unanswered questions Red Hat has explained their actions as a defensive strategy. One has to recognize that while patents do just as RedHat has stated we still live in a world where patents can be used as very strong weapons in the business world and RedHat is a business that threatens many industry players. Sometimes the best defense can be a good patent.

Just having a patent can build a quick and unspoken social agreement between companies that goes along the lines of "If you don’t attack me and my friends, my friends and I won’t attack you." This has been referred to in the patent world as a mutual defense policy.

This still sounds like an unpleasant business practice to have to take part in, but such is life when your foes want you to fail. Until such a time comes that software patents die off like the dinosaurs they are I think Red Hat is justified in defending itself.

Red Hat has promised to act as a non-aggressor; to use the patents only to defend itself. It’s hard to read between the legal mumbo-jumbo, but it’s there. Something along the lines of "Dear, open source/free software guy, If you use something that we’ve patented we won’t come after you. This is for defense only".

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt until such time that they appear to abuse the power of a patent. It is only a promise after all. Vigilance is our duty here. Keep an eye on them & exert pressure if they get heavy handed. This is a smart move. Red Hat is defending itself and possibly you.

Am I so wrong? Let me know...