Today, Red Hat took a public stand challenging the standards for patenting software. In the Biliski case that is now before the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, this patent issue is ripe for consideration. In a friend of the court brief submitted to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in the Bilski case today, Red Hat describes the special problems that patents pose for open source and seeks modification of the standards for patentable subject matter that take open source into account. Here is a quick summary of our brief.

Open source software is one of the most dynamic, innovative sectors of the U.S. economy, but the U.S. patent system is a costly hindrance to open source innovation. We believe that although the patent system was created to foster innovation, it’s simply not an engine for innovation for open source. Software patents were barely recognized when open source began, and so the hope of obtaining a patent did not motivate the first developers. Those pioneers were generally opposed to software patents. The open, collaborative activity at the heart of open source is at odds with the patent system, which excludes the public from making, using or selling a patented invention. Open source developers seek to contribute code to the community – not to exclude others from using the code.

Today the patent system is, if anything, a hindrance to open source. Developers face the risk that the original code they have written in good faith could be deemed to infringe an existing software patent. It’s impossible to rule out this possibility, because there are now more than 200,000 software patents, and those patents cannot be efficiently searched. Software patents are difficult to interpret, even for experts in computer science and software engineering. Experts often disagree as to whether a particular patent claim covers a particular program. Thus , a risk of litigation exist for every open source project, and the potential cost of patent litigation runs into millions of dollars for a single case.

Given the litigation risk, some open source companies, including Red Hat, acquire patents for the sole purpose of asserting them defensively in the event they are faced with a future lawsuit. Red Hat also provides open source intellectual property protections through our Open Source Assurance Program that protects our customers and encourages them to deploy with confidence. Our strategy is a prudent one and mitigates the risk of patent lawsuits, but it would be unnecessary if the system itself were fixed.

Despite the hindrances of the patent system, open source continues to expand at an exponential rate. One can only imagine how that expansion would accelerate if the braking effect of the patent system were lifted.

In the Bilski case now pending in the Federal Circuit, the appeals court will address the issue of the boundaries of the subject matter that may be patented. The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that abstract ideas and algorithms (which are the core building blocks of computer programs) are not patentable. Applying this principle consistently would greatly narrow the availability of software patents. As the Federal Circuit addresses the standard for patentable subject matter, we urge in our brief that it take account of the perverse effects of the patent system on open source and narrow the standard for patentability.

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