Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Open source firm Red Hat sued in patent case

Out-Law News | 30 Jun 2006 | 10:34 am | 2 min. read

Open source software company Red Hat is being sued in the US for patent infringement. Patent experts are watching the case closely because the patent in question is seen as being wide in scope and any judgment could affect future software patent cases.

Firestar Software is suing Red Hat over a piece of software called Hibernate 3.0, which it says infringes its patent, number 6,101,502. Hibernate was created by JBoss, and Firestar's suit says that it notified JBoss that Hibernate violated its patent on 26th May this year. Red Hat announced that it was buying JBoss on 5th June this year.

The case will be the subject of added attention because Red Hat is a leading light in the open source software movement, which is generally opposed to software patents. Red Hat has its own software patents policy, which says: "Red Hat has consistently taken the position that software patents generally impede innovation in software development and that software patents are inconsistent with open source/free software".

The disputed software, Hibernate, connects software applications to databases. "Firestar has been damaged and has suffered irreparable injury due to the acts of infringement by defendants and will continue to suffer irreparable injury unless defendants' activities are enjoined," claims Firestar's complaint, filed to the District Court of the Easter Division of Texas.

Though the case will be closely watched in the US, in Europe software still cannot be patented. "Whatever the case may be in the US, under English law computer programs 'as such' cannot be patented," said James Duffet-Smith, a solicitor with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.

"However, it is well established that the application of a computer program may be patentable if it gives a 'technical effect'. What this means is not entirely clear – this is a complex and grey area that needs to be clarified. IP protection for computer programs falls in England on the whole to copyright, which protects the expression or embodiment of an idea, rather than to a patent which protects the idea itself. This means that protection is much narrower in this jurisdiction, as an idea can be copied without the way in which that idea is expressed having been copied."

Duffett-Smith said that the fact that Red Hat is an open source firm does not necessarily have a bearing on the case. It could, however, mark the beginning of a decline in the number of patent infringement cases facing open source firms, he said. "In future, patent infringement suits for open source software may decline as version three of the GPL, the most common open source licence, is adopted," said Duffett-Smith.

"Version three of the GPL contains an explicit patent licence, as opposed to the copyright licence in version two. This reflects a widely held view in the open source community that software patents are particularly dangerous for the ongoing development of open source software," he said. "However, this will depend upon the open source community embracing the new GPL, and there is no guarantee that it will".