Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Open Invention Network's Associate Member Program: what's that?

I recently commented on the Open Invention Network (OIN), an alliance of six companies that claims to protect Linux from patent threats but hasn't ever proven any success in that regard. I outlined some of my concerns in the aforementioned posting and concluded that a company-independent solution is needed. The Defensive Patent License (DPL) may soon be a much better choice.

An enigmatic press release

On Tuesday (June 22), the OIN announced that Canonical (the Ubuntu company) became the first "Associate Member" of the OIN. The announcement is one of the most unspecific press releases I've ever seen. It looks like a parody of the proverbial politician who talks a lot but says nothing. They announce a new Associate Member program and don't even say what sets an Associate Member apart from a full member (they say "Founding Member") and from a mere Licensee (which is what Canonical was prior to its promotion to Associate Member).

Here's how they "define" the term:
Associate Members are recruited from Linux-related companies, including those that are leaders in advancing Linux's migration into emerging growth markets. Associate Members make a commitment to the Linux Community by virtue of their commitments to and membership in OIN and help to ensure that patent issues do not impair Linux's growth.
What in the world is that supposed to mean? Nothing. The first sentence says you have to be a Linux-related company. Since the OIN's patent licensing terms are specific to what they call "the Linux System", there's no reason why anyone who isn't in one way or another "Linux-related" (very broad terminology!) would join the OIN as whatever type of member. The second sentence equally applies to the other two member categories: even a Licensee must make a commitment not to assert his patents against "the Linux System". So how's this different for an Associate Member? There must be a difference, but they won't really tell what it is.

That nebulous language isn't just due to a lazy PR person. It simply reflects the OIN philosophy (which, of course, is in no small part a reflection of the attitude of the OIN's financiers).

Systematic secrecy

I'd never expect them to be too open for their own good: if they become involved with a patent dispute, I understand they won't disclose their case-specific strategy in public.

But there are many things that they certainly could talk about without any adverse effect on their activities. If they wan't to be secretive, why do they issue such a press release in the first pace? If you want to announce something, you usually want people to get at least the basic message. All they said was that Canonical is now called an Associate Member, whatever that may be.

Journalists are also puzzled

TheRegister also mentioned the lack of clarity concerning the meaning of the term "Associate Member", accurately stating that "it's far from clear what Canonical will do as an associate member."

DaniWeb informed its readers of the announcement and published my comments. AlcanceLibre did so in Spanish and Pro-Linux quoted a part of my statement in German.

ZDNet blogger Dana Blankenhorn tried to obtain more information the OIN's chief executive Keith Bergelt. However, what the OIN told him still doesn't really add much information. "Associate Members pay an unspecified fee and will exist somewhere in the middle [between Founding Members and Licensees]", Dana concluded from what he was told.

Linux Pro Magazine has also asked the OIN and Canonical for more information and will publish it when available. We'll see if the self-proclaimed protector of Linux is going to be more forthcoming now.

The OIN should be at least as transparent as MPEG LA

I understand the reservations of many opponents of software patents concerning MPEG LA, which like the OIN is a non-practicing entity administrating patents on behalf of practicing entities that effectively own it. Our community doesn't like the idea of having to pay for multimedia codecs (Canonical recently became the first Linux company to pay patent royalties to MPEG LA for H.264, by the way).

But MPEG LA says a whole lot more about the way it conducts its business than the OIN does. That's a fact. Not only does MPEG LA provide a lot more information on its website than the OIN but it also provides reasonably informative answers to individual questions. I recently had doubts about MPEG LA's annual royalty cap as well as the protection of licensees against infringing competitors, and I got clear answers that I published in this recent blog posting.

They gave that information even though they knew that I'd like to see software patents abolished, which would spell the end for their business model.

It goes without saying that I don't mean to promote MPEG LA. It just beats me that the OIN can't be at least as open as MPEG LA, and this adds to my impression that the OIN has something to hide.

Next steps

In my next blog posting I'll discuss one of the biggest problems I have with the OIN, which is its arbitrary, ever-changing scope of "protection".

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