Free Software Foundation Offers Grudging Support to Google in Patent Case
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has, up to this point, kept quiet on Oracle's patent lawsuit against Google's Android. This week however, the organization's compliance engineer Brett Smith asserted the FSF's opposition to the lawsuit, whilst keeping their support for Google somewhat muted.
It should be noted that the FSF has a vested interest in seeing the action defeated, since it was their GPL license that Sun Microsystems used for Java when it open-sourced the code in 2006. A victory for Oracle could potentially leave Java open to further suits elsewhere, and could potentially open the door to so called "patent trolling" activities against the GPL.
Smith argues that Oracle's lawsuit threatens "all of the good will that has built up" since Sun open-sourced Java, arguing:
One of the great benefits of free software is that it allows programs to be combined in ways that none of the original developers would've anticipated, to create something new and exciting. Oracle is signaling to the world that they intend to limit everyone's ability to do this with Java, and that's unjustifiable.
Smith is encouraging opponents of Oracle's case to write to the vendor pointing out that it has changed its position on patents. Oracle opposed the patentability of software in a letter to the US Patent and Trademark Office, written in 1994, in which it argued that patents were inappropriate for industries such as software where "innovations occur rapidly, can be made without a substantial capital investment, and tend to be creative combinations of previously-known techniques". The letter goes on
Software patent examinations are hindered by the limited capability of searching prior art, by the turnover rate among examiners in the Patent and Trademark Office, and by the confusion surrounding novelty and innovation in the software arena. The problem is exacerbated by varying international patent laws, which both raise the cost and confuse the issue of patent protection.
Many commentators, including JRuby Lead Charles Nutter, have argued that most or all of the seven patents Oracle's case rests on should be covered by prior art. Of course at the time it wrote the letter Oracle was far from the dominant player in the database market it is today, fighting entrenched competitors including Sybase, IBM and Ingres, and facing a new threat from Microsoft's partnership with Ashton-Tate and Sybase to develop SQL Server.
However whilst Smith and the FSF concentrate their fire on Oracle, Google is also criticized for not taking a clear position against software patents, and for building Android on top of the Apache Licensed Harmony instead of IcedTea, another GPL licensed implementation based on Sun's original code. Smith goes on, "The FSF encourages Google to fight Oracle's claims, and take a principled stand against all software patents".