Google Fined $5 Million for Using Linux

In what could be a major blow to those hoping to see Linux in the workplace, a small company called Bedrock Computer Technologies sued Google for patent infringement because the company used the Linux operating system.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

The implications could be as big as this software company wants to make it. Bedrock Computer Technologies has claimed that the Linux kernel, the core of Linux servers, is infringing on their patents. The patent in this case is patent number 5,893,120 which is, “A method and apparatus for performing storage and retrieval in an information storage system is disclosed that uses the hashing technique with the external chaining method for collision resolution.”

The issue here is not that Google was fined $5 million, but the fact that now any company that uses Linux servers could be sued if they aren’t paying royalties to this company. The BBC says that other companies like Yahoo, MySpace, Amazon, PayPal, and AOL have also been sued by the same company. From the BBC:

“The implication here is really that there is a huge number of Linux users who will be required to pay royalties if this patent holder knocks on their doors in the US. This is definitely a major impediment to the growth of Linux and makes companies, including Google, that rely on open source code particularly vulnerable to patent threats.”

That is also the view of other industry watchers who expect a flood of lawsuits against companies who rely on open source code.

“Those looking to cash in on buried patents need only spend time poring over code and looking for infringements,” said Christopher Dawson of technology blog ZDNet.

“It costs a lot less than $5m to hire a team of programmers in India to do code review. This, I’m afraid, is just the beginning and stands to do a fair amount of harm to industry momentum and to the private companies that provide vast incentive for the advancement of open source software.”

While it’s no surprise that a Texas court was used to get this finding, Mike Masnick of TechDirt had his own comments on the issue:

The real fear here is that Bedrock might now be in a position to claim that many Linux users all around the world (especially on the server side) are infringing on the same patent, which might create some pretty serious headaches. Considering how many businesses use Linux servers, this seems like a patent that can be used extensively against all sorts of companies, whose work has absolutely nothing to do with this patent. It could create a new tax for any business using Linux.

“Now, I hate all software patents, but even if I didn’t, this patent is garbage” Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of ZDNet said. He continued, “As I read it, I think I violated it myself back in the 80s. I mean, just read it, it’s a description of how to use hashing with a linked list. Come on! That might not be programming 101, but it’s not far from it!”

If Google decides to not fight this, it could spell trouble for the Linux community in any corporate environment. One of the main arguments for using free/libre software is the fact that one doesn’t have to pay royalties and is, therefore, cheaper. This case has a very distinct potential of undermining that argument. What I think this will also do is re-ignite some discussion surrounding the legality of software patents.

Do you think software patents should be allowed to exist?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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