When will Linux stop being portrayed as the little OS that could? At LinuxWorld, it’s become an annual ritual for some Fortune 500 company to get on the podium and tell us that Linux has “arrived.” Last year it was Unilever, this year it was Amazon, which broke its longstanding silence on technology to describe how its Linux farms are processing up to tens of millions of orders daily.
Clearly, SCO’s lawsuit hasn’t discouraged Linux adoption, although some companies may be reticent to disclose how they are licensing it. With litigation flying, it shouldn’t be surprising that somebody has come up with a tool for tracking open source intellectual property. Introduced by startup Black Duck Software, the tool applies anti-virus like techniques to ferret out “signatures” of known open source code and identifies the appropriate open source license. They count nearly 75 different varieties of open source license, although if you listen to open source evangelist Eric S. Raymond, there is only one: either the license complies with Bruce Perens’ Open Source Definition, or it doesn’t.
Although the conventional wisdom is that SCO has not yet produced a real smoking gun to back its allegations, Perens himself warns software developers not to grow complacent. Sure, he expects the SCO suit to go away, but he warns, beware of patents. Exhibit 1, of course, being the recent $500+ million judgment that Eolas won against Microsoft over browser plug-ins. The fear is that patent suits will halt innovation.
Software patent suits aren’t new. A decade ago, Comptons New Media won a flaky judgment backing its claim to inventing multimedia computing. Yet, a decade later, Comptons’ patent hasn’t slowed multimedia development, not to mention the millions of users downloading MP3s (although copyright suits might be another matter). Admittedly, while large companies like IBM boast of their bulging software patent portfolios, they make their money selling products and services, not patent royalties. We don’t expect the IBMs of the world becoming plaintiffs.
But smaller companies, especially those that can’t make money in their actual business, probably will, as SCO has demonstrated. Legally, there are all too few hurdles to filing frivolous cases. Forget about the debate on whether vendors should indemnify their customers, major vendors won’t leave their customers exposed. Instead, the real risk is to customers buying software from startups who may not have the resources to protect their buyers. Unfortunately, that’s where the real barriers to innovation may emerge.