As we all know, patents are busy tearing the very fabric of this industry apart. Whether it's small patent trolls attacking small startups, or large corporations like Apple and Microsoft attacking their competitors with dubious software patents, they are a huge damper on innovation, and lead to an unequal distribution of power from which we all suffer through reduced innovation, less competition, and higher prices.
I've already detailed a few ways in which the patent system ought to be improved, while also explaining that such changes will simply never occur because intellectual property law exists outside of the democratic process. Luckily, there is a second, perhaps more practical way of solving this mess: companies pledging to simply not use their patents offensively, even when infringed.
This is exactly what Google has announced today. "We pledge not to sue any user, distributor or developer of open-source software on specified patents, unless first attacked", the company promises. Good news, but as you can see, there is a catch (we're talking corporations, after all): specified patents.
For now, Google states in the FAQ that it wants to test the waters for the OPN, and as such, it's pledging only 10 patents first. They are all related to Google's MapReduce; these patents are widely used in open source projects, according to Google, so they're good candidates for the company to get its feet wet. More patents will be added over time, but each and every pledged patent probably requires detailed legal assessment.
There are a few interesting aspects to the OPN that really make a huge difference. First, it covers projects under any OSI or FSF-approved license (so no specific licenses only), and projects from the past, present and future. Better yet, the pledge even remains in force if Google were to transfer the patents, i.e., sell them. In addition, unlike patents covered by, say, the Open Invention Network (of which Google is also a member), there's no need for inter-company patent licensing - the pledge covers it all.
The OPN itself is also open, and Google invites other companies to adopt the pledge for patents of their own. Cloudera, IBM and the OIN "agree and endorse" the pledge. I wouldn't be surprised to see prominent open source companies like e.g. Red Hat to join in soon as well.
It is also reminiscent of Microsoft's Community Promise regarding C#, but that one is tailored entirely to one subject, and won't expand to cover other areas as well. In addition, the community promise has a dubious wiggle in that only full implementations of the covered specifications are safe; partial implementations or improvements are not.
For now, the OPN Pledge is nothing more than a small start, and in the grand scheme of things, it's quite inconsequential. However, in today's litigious patent climate, I'll take anything over the status quo, no matter how small. This might only cover 10 patents, but a world with a gazillion-minus-10 patents is still better than a world with a gazillion patents.