Open-source vendors seek help from Congress

Open Standard Requirement for Software

Open-source software vendors are prodding Congress to define some legal standards to support the development and deployment of such software.

The vendors, which have formed the nonprofit Open Source Initiative (OSI), are most concerned about the legal definition of open-source software. Traditionally, such vendors provide full access to the source code of their applications, allowing others to study, change and redistribute the software on their own.

But they see an emerging trend in which some traditional software vendors are releasing so-called open-source software that has been patented. Barring any other legal protection, developers working with patented source code could be drawn into intellectual property disputes, OSI vendors say.

The lack of legal standards in the market “militates against the universality” of open-source software, said Michael Tiemann, vice president of open-source affairs at Red Hat and president of OSI. The possibility of litigation threatens to stifle innovation in the community, he said.

OSI has released several drafts of guidelines on the subject, the latest of which was published in September. One of the key recommendations is that any patents associated with open-source software should be royalty free, Tiemann said.

“If the definition of open source does not define [it] correctly, then there's a big problem,” Tiemann said.

This issue came into focus with last week's announcement of a partnership between software giant Microsoft and Novell, which makes SUSE Linux.

The two companies plan to work together to make it easier for customers to manage environments that include both operating systems. As part of the deal, they made a point to create "covenants" that protect customers from intellectual property entanglements stemming from Microsoft patents.

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