Novell joins EFF for patent reform

Stung by criticism of its patent pact with Microsoft, Novell agrees to support Electronic Frontier Foundation's patent-busting work.

SAN FRANCISCO--Facing criticism for its patent pact with Microsoft, Novell on Wednesday said it's supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation's effort to challenge what it believes are bogus patents.

Novell is providing funding for the EFF's "patent-busting" effort, Nat Friedman, Novell's chief technology and strategy officer for open-source, said in an interview here at the Open Source Business Conference. In addition, Novell will work for patent reform in general and work to remove patent encumbrances from otherwise open standards, he said.

"Novell is supporting us to ensure patents aren't going to hurt innovation," said Shari Steele, EFF's executive director. In particular, "Novell is now sponsoring us to...export our patent-busting program to Europe," where EFF will hire legal representation, she said.

Software patents are a thorny issue in the technology industry. Many companies obtain them--even those such as Linux seller Red Hat that often oppose software patents. But the open-source software movement's principles of cooperation and sharing often are an awkward fit for the patent system's grant of exclusive proprietary rights. Novell, despite having more than 500 software patents globally, is trying to send an unambiguous message about the issue.

"We're saying publicly that software patents on the whole do more harm than good," Friedman said. "It slows innovation, cripples open standards, and can have a chilling effect on new entrants to the market."

The issue came to a head in November, when Novell and Microsoft signed a patent partnership under which Microsoft agreed to sell coupons entitling customers to use Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server without fear of a patent infringement suit from Microsoft. Novell faced criticism from open-source fans--Red Hat attorney Mark Webbink called it "appeasement," for example--and it spawned open-source licensing work that could prohibit some such deals in the future.

Microsoft fanned the flames further last week by declaring Linux and other open-source software infringed 235 Microsoft patents, though it didn't say which specific patents.

Justin Steinman, director of marketing for Linux at Novell, dismissed Microsoft's claim but defended his company's deal with Microsoft.

"We maintain there are no infringements inside Linux, but customers are telling us they don't know," Steinman said. "They don't want to worry about it. They want somebody else to solve this problem for them."

But there's no question that Novell heard the criticism loud and clear.

"It's fair to say we thought a lot about the patent system in the last six months," Friedman said. And asked if he hoped the EFF deal would help rehabilitate Novell's image, he said, "I hope it gives people a more full perspective on what we at Novell believe and what we're doing."

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