Happy Holidays! It’s time to write the obligatory top 10 lists for the closing year. Here are some of the most interesting developments from 2019 in my little corner of the world: open source licensing and software licensing, as well as a few more broad-ranging IP topics.
- Patent Troll Sues Non-Profit, Apparently Unclear on the Concept. In this unexpected lawsuit, Rothschild Patent Imaging, LLC sued the GNOME Foundation, a non-profit foundation that runs the GNOME project, for patent infringement. In the entirely expected aftermath, the GNOME project rallied broad support across the industry to fight the case, including offering bounties for prior art. The plaintiff violated the most sacrosanct rule of trolling, which is to only sue people with money.
- Huawei was Blackballed by the US Government. Major Chinese mobile device manufacturer Huawei was placed on the “Entity List,” limiting exports to it, and many of its non-US affiliates, from technology providers in the US. Open source projects generally enjoy a relief from the export regulations that govern software: Sections 734.7 and 742.15 of the EAR provide that “published” source code escapes most regulation. (For a good explanation, see the EFF page here.) But the move shed light on the challenges export law can present for open source and standards efforts.
- Red Hat replaces Oracle as OpenJDK Steward. The sooner the better. But the industry needs a clear successor to Java whose rights are not owned by a private entity with no particular loyalty to a developer community. Maybe WASM?
- AI Applies for a Patent. A patent application was filed for an invention that was created by an AI. (The invention is a “container lid designed for robotic gripping and a flashlight system for attracting human attention in emergencies.”) The US PTO initially rejected the application because the PTO requires that inventors be listed by their legal names, and the AI did not have a legal name. But that end-run will soon give way to the larger substantive issue of whether non-humans can be inventors, an issue that has not yet been addressed by lawmakers.
- Oracle v. Google Going to the Supremes. After nearly a decade of litigation, including two trials and two appeals to the Federal Circuit, the landmark software copyright case was granted cert by the US Supreme Court. Arguments and a decision should follow in early to mid-2020. EFF’s summary of the case is here.
- GITHUB is More Prepared Than the Rest of Us for the Zombie Apocalypse. In a conservation move no one realized was necessary, GITHUB archives open source software in a cave in Norway, near the Global Seed Bank. Presumably the intrepid survivors of the human race will be more interested in agronomy than coding, but you never know.
- The Mainstream Media Notices Open Source. In the last few weeks, CNBC and the New York Times both published the kind of story you would expect from journalists who don’t give a tinker’s damn about technology, and have just now noticed that the entire world runs on open source software and has done so for about a decade. The NYT particularly showed its journalistic savvy by noticing the biggest trend of 2018 (the “strip-mining” controversy) about one year late. For a better article, consider the Economist.
- Ethos Licensing and Programmer Activism. Ethos licensing is an attempt to impose software use conditions that are directed toward social engineering. Most of these licenses are effectively political manifestos without concrete effect. This trend culminated in late 2019 in the Vaccine License, which was submitted under a coy pseudonym to OSI for approval, presumably as a form of nerdy performance art. OSI has not yet approved or rejected it (which portends rejection). Other coders voted with their feet by removing their key software from popular repositories and disrupting the software build chain.
- PolyForm. The PolyForm project launched with five licenses available for adoption by those who want to use source-available licenses instead of open source licenses. They include source code licenses with non-commercial and evaluation-only limitations.
- Blue Oak Council launched with, among other resources, a ranked list of permissive licenses and open source use policies that leverage that list.
- RMS is driven out of MIT AI Lab and FSF. I have put this one last (and at number 11) because, though it was undeniably a significant development, I am tired of writing, talking and thinking about it. In an embarrassing moment for free software that played to negative social stereotypes of computer programmers, Mr. Stallman became a casualty of the Epstein scandal combined with his social tone-deafness on gender issues. His resignation created a power vacuum at the top of Free Software Foundation, which as of today is seeking a new president.
Happy holidays, everyone, and best wishes for more fun and drama in 2020.