How The GPL Defangs Patent Trolls
from the mutual-defense dept
Last week, Red Hat settled an abusive patent lawsuit brought by a company called FireStar software. Way back in 2006, I discussed the patent in question, which covers some rather broad and obvious software concepts. It looks like Red Hat has settled the lawsuit in a way that extends patent protection to the entire free software community.
Why would a patent troll agree to this? Don Marti explains how the GPL strengthened Red Hat’s bargaining position. In a normal patent licensing negotiation, the patent troll would demand a per-user license fee that would be passed along to the vendor’s customers. But the GPL specifically prohibits Red Hat from doing this; if Red Hat agreed to pay per-user royalties, it would be in violation of the GPL and would lose the right to distribute the software at all. That put Red Hat in a strong negotiating position because Firestar knew Red Hat wasn’t bluffing. In Don Marti’s apt metaphor, a patent troll suing a free software company is like “robbing a store where the safe is on a time lock” — the victim couldn’t give him the goods if he wanted to. As a result, FireStar’s only option was to grant Red Hat a patent license that covered not only Red Hat but everyone in the free software community whose products are derived from Red Hat’s. Obviously, that greatly reduces FireStar’s potential patent trolling profits, because it can’t shake down all of Red Hat’s competitors. This gives patent trolls a powerful incentive to focus on shaking down proprietary software companies, and leave free software vendors alone.