Raising the bar on patents and standards
By webmink on Sep 29, 2005
Great news for OpenDocument fans. The guy from Microsoft couldn't have known this, but we were already working on a move that raises the bar on what it means to create a truly open standard. Yesterday, Sun sent to OASIS a new statement concerning patents on the OpenDocument standard. To decode this statement for you, it says that Sun promises not to enforce any patent in any country against any implementation of the OpenDocument format (ODF). That means that, unless you're intending to sue Sun in connection with ODF, you can use ODF with confidence and ignore the FUD.
To dive deeper on the key features:
- It's a blanket promise connected with ODF that's not restricted to particular facets or features - it doesn't just have a list of a few carefully-selected patents and leave you to wonder what's not granted. This is for me a key philosophical point. While I congratulate the gesture behind them, previous attempts at patent protection using the "patent commons" approach glorify patents, forcing anyone who would benefit from the apparent protection to become a patent expert. A blanket statement like this just says "no need to look, you're safe, Sun is on your side".
- It's irrevocable. It's a promise you can rely on, regardless of changes in Sun and the industry.
- It's global. No games involving smiles in one country and attacks in places that don't hit the news so much.
- It's not time-limited - there's no "everything before this point" clause. It extends into new features added to future versions of ODF all the time Sun continues contributing to its development.
- It's reciprocal (we won't sue you if you don't sue us). That means that we're still able to take action to protect ourselves and the community we participate in, despite providing rock-solid safety for developers and end-users.
- There's no bureaucracy. Some moves in the past have sounded generous but have required some sort of action to register a license or act in some other way that limits redistribution of software that's trying to benefit from the protection.
- It's simple and clear. There is no game being played.
- There's no "essential claims" language. Most statements like this one include language that says that you only get a "waiver" if you've no choice but to infringe the patent. This statement applies regardless. [Thanks to Orcmid, below, for this one]
While this is hugely important and re-assuring for ODF, it's even more important for open standards, as David Berlind points out. It provides an example of how to use patents in a defensive, open-source-friendly way. It provides a model for patent protection that doesn't involve the glorification of software patents. It balances the needs of the corporation to retain self-defence capability in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate IPR and the needs of open source developers to be freed from fear of legal attack.
It is inexpensive for corporations to make this sort of statement - it is an expression of vision rather than the carefully gamed result of an exhaustive patent search and a technical analysis of its outcomes. In my view, it sets the standard for future standards and I am thrilled we've taken this step. We've not patented this idea; feel free to copy it and set the open source world free of fear of legal action over 'open' standards.