Red Hat CEO decries software patents

Patents 'absolutely' retard the pace of innovation, CEO Matthew Szulik argues, but he doesn't call for their abolition.

Stephen Shankland
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SAN FRANCISCO--Software patents are slowing innovation, Red Hat Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said Tuesday.

"In the last 30 years, we've continued to see patents really being a challenge to innovation. The industry moves much faster than a remedy process," Szulik told hundreds of attendees at the Open Source Business Conference here. "There is very little empirical evidence that builds a correlation between patents and innovation."

In an interview after the speech, Szulik said software patents "absolutely" retard the pace of innovation. But he stopped short of calling for their abolition, as have some of his colleagues in the free and open-source software movement. Instead, he urged reform of the patent process.

Red Hat last week became one of several open-source Microsoft rivals targeted as infringing 235 of the software giant's patents. Microsoft would like to arrange patent licensing deals in one way or another, as it did in 2006 with Linux seller Novell. But an amicable resolution seems unlikely at present.

Szulik took pains in his speech to argue that open-source programmers aren't running roughshod over others' patents. "I've had discussions with most luminaries of the open-source industry. They have always been respectful of intellectual property, of originality and invention," Szulik said.

Afterward, he added that it would be useful for Microsoft to share not just the tally of 235 patents, but the list of patents themselves.

"No responsible vendor wants to violate patents or infringe. Any access that would allow workarounds to take place, so the respect for the innovation is maintained, is a good thing," he said, sidestepping the issue that Microsoft would doubtless prefer that others license rather than bypass its patents.

Red Hat itself applies for software patents, but said it plans to use them only defensively. Patents do have some value, Szulik said: "When the idea is original, there's no doubt it has value to developers and the organization behind them."

Szulik's patent reform agenda includes a better searchable database, a "cleaner distinction between patents and trade secrets," and a shorter review process for assigning patents.