Novell approach to software patent reform

24 May 2007

Novell and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are to team up to work on reforms to software patents worldwide.

The two organisations will work to lobby governments and national and international organisations to develop legislation and policies around patents designed to promote innovation.

“It is increasingly obvious that software patents are not a meaningful measure of innovation,” said Jeff Jaffe, executive vice-president and chief technology officer at Novell. “As a long-time innovator in the industry and a holder of many significant patents, we understand the rationale behind the patent system in general. But we believe that software patent system reform is necessary to promote software innovation going forward.”

A key area of focus will be the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), where member governments of the United Nations meet to coordinate positions on intellectual property issues. Given the ease with which software ideas and code cross borders, a global approach to the issue is required, Novell said.

Novell will also contribute significant resources to the EFF’s ongoing ‘Patent Busting’ project. Launched in 2004, the project is designed to attack patents that impose particularly heavy burdens on software developers and internet users by identifying prior art that can be used to invalidate those patents and by pursuing invalidation of those patents through re-examination efforts.

“EFF has long been at the forefront in addressing the key challenges of the digital age, including worldwide intellectual property issues,” said EFF executive director Shari Steele. “The support of Novell – a company founded on the proprietary software development model but now strongly embracing the open source approach – will be a great boon to our efforts to rid the industry of innovation-killing patents. We hope Novell’s example encourages other software vendors to join the effort.”

An early innovator in networking, word processing and messaging technologies, Novell holds more than 500 patents. Having shifted its business to focus more on open source and open standards-based solutions, Novell said it recognises the new model for innovation is open source and the existing patent system is detrimental to open source development.

The company has already taken several steps to promote the use of patents to protect open source, including a 2004 pledge to use its own patents to defend against patent attacks on open source, and the contribution of patents and significant financial resources to Open Invention Network, an intellectual property company Novell co-founded in 2005 to promote Linux by using patents to create a collaborative environment.

“Today’s announcement is a logical next step for Novell in its efforts to make patents a non-issue for the software community,” said Nat Friedman, chief strategy and technology officer for open source at Novell. “Software patents hobble open standards and interoperability, impede innovation and progress, threaten the development of free and open source software, and have a chilling effect on software development. Our partnership with the EFF is about creating a world where software developers and users do not to have to worry about patents.”

By Niall Byrne