Engelbart to Help Prodigy Fight BT Lawsuit

by Don Marti

"I can't imagine it. We were using hyperlinks way back", Engelbart said. He said that he and his colleagues had hyperlinks working in 1965 or 1966. He added that he would prefer not to testify in the case, and would rather help Prodigy's lawyers behind the scenes. Last year, slashdot.org suggested videos of Engelbart's 1968 hypertext demo "knock BT's patent for hyperlinking out of the water".

Engelbart was the keynote speaker at a swanky San Francisco conference Wednesday, April 18, called "Rethinking Business in Light of Open Source". The conference was organized by VA Linux's Open Source Development Network and University of California, Berkeley's Berkeley Roundtable on the Internet Economy.

Panel discussions at the conference mostly recapitulated the same old "how your business can benefit from Open Source" arguments panelists can probably do in their sleep by now. But besides that, the conference was tied together by a common thread of concern about the ongoing software patent crisis. And no solution is in sight. Eric Allman, author of Sendmail and CTO of Sendmail, Inc., said, "The situation is just incredibly bad right now", and added, "It doesn't matter how bogus it is, you still have to spend bucks to defend yourself against this ludicrous stuff."

David Henkel-Wallace, cofounder of Cygnus and now CEO of proprietary software vendor Zembu, said that harassment by software patent holders doesn't just fall on companies developing Open Source software. "It's pretty nasty, but a lot of these issues are the same whether you've got free software or not." He said that some proprietary software companies are willing to sign statements to the effect that they don't know of any software patent infringement in their products, even when they know they do indeed exist. Free software companies try to be more scrupulous about working around software patents instead of taking a chance with infringement, but the problem is industry-wide, he said.

A few speakers offered partial solutions for software patents. Mike Balma of Hewlett-Packard mentioned a future summit on legal issues, including patents, that Bruce Perens will moderate later this year. Larry Augustin, CEO of VA Linux Systems, looking a little sheepish, suggested that "We really do need to come together" to develop a database of prior art in free software. Danese Cooper from Sun Microsystems said that some existing free software licenses, including Apache's, leave projects open to attack from software patenteers who contribute code without disclosing their patents. Better-written licenses can help, she said. Cooper has tried to address the patent crisis in Sun's licenses but has met resistance from one major corporate contributor.

The Grateful Dead once sang, "I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe,/ But at least I'm enjoying the ride." With all their croissants, Starbucks coffee, complimentary cocktails and self-congratulatory PowerPoint pie charts with big wedges for Linux and Apache, that could be the theme song for this and future Open Source business conferences.

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