The greatest threat to Linux may not come from adversaries such as Microsoft and the SCO Group, but rather from its strongest supporters, open-source advocate Bruce Perens has said at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.
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The co-founder of the Open Source Initiative singled out IBM, Red Hat and Hewlett-Packard for particular comment.
"SCO is nothing beside the threat that open-source developers face from software patents, a fight that we are losing badly," he said, pointing to pending legislation before the European Parliament that will permit software patents in the European Union for the first time. Software patents have been permitted in the US since the 1980s.
SCO claims that the Linux source code violates its intellectual property rights and is suing IBM for more than $3bn (£1.9bn) in relation to those claims. SCO is also threatening to sue Linux users if they continue to use Linux without paying the company a licensing fee.
Perens is concerned that by implementing standard technologies - protocols defined by the internet's standards body the Internet Engineering Task Force, for example - Linux developers could expose themselves to lawsuits over patented technology contained in those standards.
The open-source guru called on companies with large software patent portfolios like IBM and HP to provide written assurances that they will not sue open-source developers. "I'd like to have a covenant not to sue," he said. "We have really great friends and these great friends can still hurt us in significant ways."
Though a blanket agreement from IBM and HP not to sue open-source developers seems unlikely, Perens said he hopes his comments will start a dialogue with patent holders. "We should at least start talking about how IBM can protect us," he said, "I'd like to know a little bit more about what it can offer."
IBM e-Business on Demand general manager Irving Wladawsky-Berger seemed surprised to hear of Perens' comments. "The question has never come up with Linux," he said.
IBM's history of working with open communities like the World Wide Web Consortium should reassure developers, he said, but he encouraged Perens to contact IBM to discuss the issue.
HP's Linux business strategist Mike Balma had no comment on the company's software patents. "We're supporting Linux," he said. "We're supporting it as our customers want to see it."
Perens also announced that he has recruited an historic foe of IBM, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, (CCIA) to help him with his cause. The CCIA was created 30 years ago, in part, as a voice for small computer suppliers during the US Department of Justice antitrust investigation into IBM.
The CCIA is helping Perens form an open source lobbying group, the Open Source And Industry Alliance, which will represent the interests of open-source developers and companies in Washington DC.
"We believe that it is important for a group to take on open source as its core agenda," said CCIA general counsel Jason Mahler. "We hope to play a part in combating bad legislation and bad decisions in government," he said.
Perens' criticism of Red Hat centred on its support policies for Red Hat Advanced Server, which he said locked customers into receiving support from Red Hat only. "They should be able to get first-tier quality from third-party service (providers)," he said.
Finally, Perens had harsh words for HP for its "Premier" sponsorship of the SCO Forum user conference, saying the company was "tarring" itself by sponsoring SCO's event.
Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service