Litigating against innovation: Legal attacks on Linux

Patents and how they're controlled are damaging the way technology is developed - and the Linux case is a key example of this.

Meanwhile, the first substantial patent claim against a Linux distribution was made in October last year by IP Innovation LLC, a subsidiary of The Acacia Technologies Group, a publicly traded company that has a market cap of $350 million and has initiated more than 200 patent lawsuits through more than 30 subsidiary companies. In Acacia's own words its "subsidiaries are in the business of acquiring, developing, licensing and enforcing patents. We help patent holders protect their patented inventions from unauthorized use and generate revenue from licensing and, if necessary, enforcing their patents."

In other words, the company exists solely for the purchase and pursuance of patent claims.

IP Innovation LLC has issued lawsuits for patent infringement against Red Hat and Novell, having already settled out of court with Apple for infringement against the same patent. The US Patent #5,072,412 was originally filed by Xerox in 1987 and granted in 1991, and references earlier Xerox patents dating back to 1984. Two similar patents are cited in the court filings.

The patent, which is notably vague, refers to "workspaces provided by an object-based user interface" and the linking of such workspaces. The description, as with so many patents issued by the USPTO, is so vague that it could be applied to any number of obvious desktop features on any number of desktop systems. The difficulty in fighting such a case is the prohibitive cost in time, effort and money required to contest such an issue in a court of law, where technical knowledge is at a premium, and the outcome is dependent on any number of factors.

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Neither Acacia Technologies nor its subsidiaries have had any known role or history in the development of desktop workspaces, and, as signals of innovation, the patents are long past their sell-by date.

Xerox was instrumental in designing the point and click concepts that are now familiar to all desktop users, but most of these innovations date back to the 1970s. The current patent expires in December of this year. Remarkably, Apple caved in to Acacia's claims and settled out of court. Such cases, by companies with no direct interest in technical innovation, and every interest in the possession of "Intellectual Property", severely inhibit innovation and competition, and distort the market in favour of corporate interests.

Litigation as a mode of business is fashionable in the current climate, but offers little or nothing of benefit to users or developers. Authorial copyrights in the US have been extended to 70 years after the author's death. The law that made this possible, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, was passed in 1998. Patent law, meanwhile, increasingly protects the interests of the powerful, encroaches upon notions of innovation and freedom to operate, and is used to inhibit competition. Both are in critical need of reform.

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