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Anonymous backer funds patent foe

An unnamed sponsor gives open-source advocate Bruce Perens a $50,000 annuity to support his work against software patents that he says stymie industry standards.

Bruce Perens has found what every open-source activist needs: a sugar daddy.

A sponsor has provided Perens with a $50,000 annuity to support his advocacy for open-source organizations and his opposition to the software patents that he says are stymieing industry standards on which open-source groups depend.

"I'm very concerned about software patents," Perens said. "They remain a blocker for open-source software. It's really difficult for us to coexist with them, and what we're trying to do right now is mitigate the problem in the standards arena by encouraging standards organizations to engineer standards that are royalty-free."

The donor has chosen to remain anonymous, and Perens--who until last September was on Hewlett-Packard's payroll--would not say whether it was a company, a nonprofit group or an individual.

"I've been working the past two years on this issue, sometimes with very generous support from HP," Perens said. "But it became kind of a problem for HP, because I would say things for open source that would be very embarrassing to the company. I need to be able to say what I want to say, and thus people who send me money may prefer not to have their names associated with the donation."

Perens is a Linux developer who co-founded the Open Source Initiative, founded a group called Software in the Public Interest, and helped develop the Debian version of Linux. Following HP's acquisition of Compaq Computer, Perens found himself with a pink slip.

Since then, he has worked on government policy for George Washington University's Cyber Security Policy & Research Institute and consulted on open-source implementation for companies including the Open Group, Novell and HP.

The problem with software patents, according to Perens and other open-source advocates, is that companies working with standards organizations may assert their ownership over a certain piece of intellectual property that they contributed to a standard, potentially forcing implementers to pay royalties on it. Open-source licenses and royalty-encumbered licenses do not mix, advocates warn.

Corporations with large patent portfolios have pressured standards organizations, even if they have a stated preference for royalty-free technologies, to make exceptions for "reasonable and nondiscriminatory," or RAND, licenses. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recently turned back an attempt to carve out a broad RAND exception. Perens said the final compromise did provide for some RAND exceptions but only under stringent conditions.

Perens has now turned his attention to other standards groups, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

This week, an IETF working group is expected to vote down a Perens-backed proposal to eliminate the group's longstanding RAND exception. Perens in November threatened to pack the IETF working group with like-minded members, but later backed down from the threat.

"I decided not to pack the working group at this time," Perens said. "What I'm going to do, now that I have funding, is to write a series of Internet drafts that lay out the real problems with patents in terms I think the IETF can understand. If we don't get movement on those, we may have to look at more drastic measures."

Perens says the $50,000 yearly grant will let him spend a quarter of his time working on the IETF and other standards groups, including the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), to urge the adoption of royalty-free policies. He also plans to become an official member of the W3C, which charges a $5,000 membership fee.

Perens said he is not finished with fund raising.

"I'm looking for someone to at least match that grant," Perens said. "One person on it still isn't enough. Open-source software has to be able to engage in open standards with some degree of confidence, and we don't have anything anywhere near that now."