At least initially, President Obama was keenly interested in exploring how the United States government could use open source software rather than rely on proprietary software. President Obama was so interested in pursuing open source software solutions that on his second day in Office he asked Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to lead his open source charge. In fact, President Obama reportedly asked McNealy to prepare a report on how the federal government could employ open source software, but as yet, some 26 months later there has been no mention of the report or across the board government adoption of open source software.
Open source advocates praised the fact that President Obama wanted to transition the U.S. government away from proprietary solutions and into open source, but now that the report has seemingly stalled and the White House has done little more than release open source Drupal code, what does the open source community have to show?
My writings about open source and software patents have earned me a special place in the hearts and minds of those who harbor irrational hatred of software patents. But I am here to tell you that open source is not all bad and, in fact, should be embraced. Open source, however, is hardly something new to the patent community. Perhaps it is better to say that where open source software is heading is nothing new, and it will come as a shock to those who hate patents, but patents will be completely necessary in order for the open source community to continue to advance and live up to its full potential.
Those who are in favor of open source frequently become near apoplectic at the thought that open source software can be, and in fact should be, patented. The reality is that forward thinking companies that operate in the open source space do make use of the patent system. A quick search of Freepatentsonline.com shows that Red Hat, Inc., one of the preeminent open source companies in the world, is named as the assignee on some 263 US patents or US patent applications. So if you are about to make an enormous mistake and listen to the “open source means free” community, ask yourself why a highly successful company like Red Hat uses the patent system and acquires patents. If patents are good for Red Hat, an open source company not at all enamored with the existence of software patents, then why are software patents bad for you? Shouldn’t you model your business off successful companies?
Reports are widespread that large corporations have cut back on the number of patent applications they file, and I see no reason to believe these first hand accounts are incorrect. Nevertheless, fiscal year 2009 saw the second highest number of patent applications filed at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, down only some 11,000 applications from the record year in FY 2008. Meanwhile, tech sector giants have been crying and moaning about how the patent system has run amok and needs to be scaled back, and continually beg for patent reform that would gut the patent system and weaken patent rights. This grumbling is picked up by patent abolitionists who say “see, even Microsoft thinks there should be no patents,” which only adds to the hysteria. Against this backdrop the corporations bemoaning patents received record numbers of patents during 2009. Obviously they talk a good game but when push comes to shove they will get as many patents as they can, but want to make it hard for small businesses and individuals to get patents. Quite curious if you ask me!
Just the other day Arstechnica.com ran an article discussing the fact that Red Hat is succeeding despite the recession. It seems that the global economic chaos is forcing an increasing number of companies to search for ways to reduce IT costs, which means that more and more companies are turning to open source solutions in order to get away from having to pay for proprietary software solutions. It is difficult, if not completely impossible, to argue the fact that open source software solutions can reduce costs when compared with proprietary software solutions, so I can completely understand why companies and governments who are cash starved would at least consider making a switch, and who can fault them for actually making the switch. The question I have is whether this is in the long term best interest of the computing/software industry. What is happening is that open source solutions are forcing down pricing and the race to zero is on. As zero is approached, however, less and less money will be available to be made, proprietary software giants will long since gone belly-up and leading open source companies, such as Red Hat, will not be able to compete. It is quite possible that the open source movement will ultimately result in a collapse of the industry, and that would not be a good thing.