Open source software business Red Hat this morning announced a big expansion of its patent promise - the 2002 commitment the company made not assert to its patents against free and open source software. The promise now extends to all of Red Hat’s patents and so offers further defensive cover to the open source community.
The new version, Red Hat states, covers more than 99% of open source software, compared to 35% previously. The new promise also specifically covers permissive licences which, in recent years, have overtaken copyleft licences as the most popular type of open source agreement. “We felt it was time to update the promise and cover permissive licences,” Red Hat senior director of patents Patrick McBride commented. “We will cover those folks who are distributing code under a permissive licence if they supplied the source code as well.”
Red Hat has been an open source pioneer since its creation in the early 1990s, contributing a huge amount of code to the Linux kernel and selling services to users of the Linux platform. Although its patent portfolio amounted to less than 10 patents when it originally announced its promise, it has since grown to more than 2,000 grants.
Despite this, Red Hat has a relationship with software-related patents that could be best described as complicated. Like many in the open source space, it would prefer that they didn’t exist, claiming, on its website, that patents generally impede software development and run counter to the principles of open source. The fact that it has developed its own portfolio, the company says, is in response to the large ones that a small group of big companies have amassed. Red Hat claims these are ripe for misuse because of the nature of many software patents and the high cost of litigation.
This latest announcement is in no small part about boosting Red Hat’s reputation among open source developers and users. The greatest threat to the community is arguably from an emerging class of “copyright trolls” rather than the software tech behemoths that once openly threatened to assert their patents against open source players. With the new promise McBride insisted that “developers will be able to see the intent and viewpoint of Red Hat as a company and our full-throated support and encouragement of their development model”.
The new promise also borrows one element from the License on Transfer Network: if Red Hat were to transfer a patent to a third party, the promise would transfer with the patent. McBride said that this “enhanced the reliability of the promise” - while it was implicit in the original agreement it had now been made explicit.
Although Red Hat’s original promise was something of a trailblazer as a defensive patent programme, it has since been followed by others looking to use their own IP to protect open source user bases. For instance, as part of its Azure IP Advantage initiative, which was announced at the start of this year, Microsoft expanded its IP indemnification protection to cover open source technology that powers the software giant’s cloud platform.
Even with those new initiatives McBride said that he hoped Red Hat’s promise would continue to set an example for the rest of the market. “We want to set a high bar even beyond our own best work and would love to see others do the same,” he commented.