Practical Technology

for practical people.

One small lawsuit for Red Hat, One big legal step for open source


Red Hat announced the settlement of patent litigation involving Firestar Software and DataTern on June 11th. Yadda, yadda. Another day , another patent lawsuit settled. Where the script changes is that Red Hat’s settlement covers not just its programs, but any open-source programs connected with the settlement.

“Typically when a company settles a patent lawsuit, it focuses on getting safety for itself,” said Rob Tiller, Red Hat’s VP and assistant general counsel for intellectual property, in a statement. “But that was not enough for us, we wanted broad provisions that covered our customers, who place trust in us, and the open source community, whose considerable efforts benefit our business.”

Red Hat was sued for patent infringement by Firestar in 2006 and later by DataTern. Red Hat denied the infringement claims and in time drove a settlement that not only ended the particular claims against it, but also provided for extensive protections for its customers and the larger open source community that Red Hat relies upon.

Firestar had alleged that Red Hat had violated its U.S. Patent No. 6,101,502 (’502 patent), which covers a method for interfacing an object-oriented software application with a relational database to facilitate access to the relational database. Firestar argued that Hibernate, a JBoss ( open-source project, infringed the ‘502 patent.

According to a Red Hat legal posting, Firestar brought the case against Red Hat in the federal court in the Eastern District of Texas in 2006. The Eastern District court is infamous for being friendly to any and all patent violation claims.

Red Hat’s defense rested on the grounds that neither Hibernate nor JBoss had infringed the patent and that the patent was invalid. An argument before the Eastern District court was scheduled, but then “shortly before the argument, the parties agreed on settlement terms.” This is not uncommon in patent cases regardless of their merits when the costs of the litigation are estimated to be more than the price of settlement. The most infamous example of this was in which patent troll NTP came away with almost half-a-billion dollars from Blackberry maker RIM after the PTO (Patent & Trademark Office) had ruled that its patents were invalid.

In Red Hat’s settlement, not only Red Hat’s software and its upstream predecessor versions, but any downstream software, are protected from further patent suits. “Red Hat’s settlement satisfies the most stringent patent provisions in open source licenses, is consistent with the letter and spirit of all versions of the GPL and provides patent safety for developers, distributors and users of open-source software,” said Richard Fontana, Red Hat’s open-source licensing and patent counsel, in a statement.

It’s not just Red Hat that sees its action as being important to open source software. Eben Moglen, professor of law at Columbia University and founding director of the SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center), said, “Red Hat’s settlement of outstanding patent litigation on terms that provide additional protection to other members of the community upstream and downstream from Red Hat is a positive contribution to the resources for community patent defense. We would hope to see more settlements of this kind–in which parties secure more than their own particular legal advantage in relation to the third-party patent risk of the whole FOSS (free and open-source software) community–when commercial re-distributors of FOSS choose to settle patent litigation. SFLC welcomes Red Hat’s efforts on the community’s behalf.”