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Vulture Company Spews OSS FUD, but Red Hat and Novell Claim Victory in Patent Suit

05.03.2010
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It's sad that Linux vendors often find themselves fighting lawsuits from companies like SCO and Microsoft that are constantly challenging open source aspects of the Linux operating system in order to make money or control it.  A recent decision in the US patent infringement case filed by IP Innovation in 2007 against Red Hat and Novell's Linux-based operating systems hopefully serves as another warning to companies that might try to use the broken software patent system to their advantage and fight against open source.  The jury in the Novell and Red Hat case ruled that the two companies did not infringe on IP Innovation's patents.  In fact, the jury concluded that the patents themselves were invalid.

Red Hat VP and assistant general counsel Rob Tiller said that this was an important victory for the open source community.  "Those in the business of acquiring bad software patents to coerce payments or bring lawsuits should be worried," he said.  Accoding to Tiller, the plaintiffs presented very little concrete evidence for their case.  Instead, Tiller believes that their strategy was to confuse a jury that had never even heard of open source. 

Specifically, IP Innovation asserted that Red Hat and Novell's Linux distributions infringed on four patents, all titled, "User interface with multiple workspaces for sharing display system objects."  The jury instructions go in to a little more detail about the patents:

The patents generally describe a a computer based graphical user interface that spans across multiple workspaces.  Within a workspace is a collection of display objects, called “tools,” that have visually distinguishable features (e.g., icons or windows).  The display objects can be shared between workspaces.  When a user switches between workspaces to perform different tasks, the display objects or tools that are common among the workspaces are displayed in the new workspace and are perceptible as the same.  

The description might sound similar to a lot of GUI's you've seen, yet Red Hat and Novell, two open source companies, were the only ones on trial.  Rob Tiller says that his company and Novell presented abundant evidence to show that the patents were invalid and based on prior art.
                                                   

IP Innovation was asking for several million dollars of compensation in this case.  The company may have imagined it had an advantage since the trial was being held in its home state, where patent claims are usually successful.  According to Tiller, the plaintiff's lawyers "launched an attack on the theory and practice of open source software" - possibly an attempt to exploit the jury's lack of open source knowledge.  They tried to convince jury members that open source business models unfairly steal the contributions of community developers for profit.  If that wasn't enough to turn your stomach, listen to this quote from Tiller:

"They also suggested that Red Hat's public criticisms of the U.S. patent system as it relates to software and related calls for legal reform were un-American and indicated a secret fondness for the writings of Karl Marx.  I kid you not!  As absurd as this argument sounds, after many hours of sitting on a hard courtroom bench, I briefly wondered whether the jury might fall for this version of the classic FUD strategy and be so fearful and confused as to find for the plaintiffs."  

I always thought the McCarthy approach was a bit dated and ignorant, and it seems the jury felt that way too.  After Red Hat and Novell presented their evidence and Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's VP of open source affairs, explained the fundamentals of open source, the jury took very little time to find all 23 issues in favor of Novell and Red Hat.