I Believe in IP

I believe in intellectual property. In my view, it’s the foundation of world economies, and certainly the foundation upon which Sun Microsystems was built. Copyright, trademark, patent – I believe in them all. I also believe in innovation and competition – and that these beliefs are not mutually exclusive.

If you look at Sun’s business, all we really are, like most of our peers in the technology industry (and the media and entertainment industries with which we’re converging), is an intellectual property fountain. Pour money in the top, some of the world’s most talented people go to work, intellectual property falls out the other end. We happen to turn our IP into storage and servers and software and services – but realistically, that’s what our manufacturing and service partners do for us. All Sun ultimately does is create ideas, design systems and engage communities. For the most part, we don’t operate large-scale factories or fabs.

Last week, I met with a leader in California politics to discuss our concerns about the state economy (and everything from education to broadband access). I spent a bunch of time talking to him and his staff about the California Performance Review, and the danger in confusing open source, and open standards. And the cynical movement by some companies to conflate those two concepts, to promote their business and lock in consumers with hidden switching costs. We, of course, offered our open source desktop to help bridge the state’s digital divide – but made clear to delineate the difference between open source products (OpenOffice and Star Office, eg), and the open standards they support.

Now, a few weeks ago, the CEO of one of the more popular open source companies called and asked me to support their stance on the invalidation of software patents. I listened closely, I respect the guy and his company. But this was the same CEO who forbade Sun from shipping his open source technology with Solaris based on a curious interpretation of the GNU Public License. And based on rabid enforcement of copyright. He was looking for broadscale support for invalidation of software patents – not spurious patents, not the kind that are acquired for litigation, but the whole concept of software patents.

And so I asked – “I’m not sure why you’re asking my support to invalidate what Sun’s stockholders have invested tens of billions of dollars to create, when you’d cringe if I told you to give away your largest asset, your copyright and brand.” His answer, “You just don’t understand.” He was right, I didn’t and don’t. And we’re going to agree to disagree. He and I, and I with a vocal minority of folks on the ‘net who feel software should have no patent protection (leaving copyright and trademark untouched). I do not support that view, any more than I believe any other field of endeavor should be subjected to such a double standard. From drug discovery to academic work, the protection of IP is part and parcel of what incents inventors to invent, and investors to invest.

It’s like my father says, “You stand where you sit.” My friends in the media or analyst community would get very upset if we published their work without attribution or compensation. No doubt HP would chafe if we presented California’s Governor with a plan to save a fortune by moving to use 3rd party inkjet suppliers. And we all know the movie industry tends to be a bit tender about copyright. And Sun has never, unlike IBM, focused on patent aggression (nor is that our strategy, we prefer innovation as a competitive weapon). But we do protect what we build, and we protect those in our communities. (That’s what community responsibility is all about.)

So that’s a long and windy road to answering some of the questions I’ve been getting from folks wanting to know why my name was on a few patents filed by Sun – it was to say, “I continue to believe in the protection of ideas conveyed by patents.” As does every company that expects to build a durable asset on behalf of its investors, and build a portfolio for defensive purposes against litigators. Rather than float on the cynicism of spurious lawsuits or cynical duplicity, we believe in innovation, and in community.

And as for what I’m going to do with the check Sun will write me for the patent applications – it’s going to a really wonderful charity. Another part of community responsibility.


ps – I guess I did a miserably poor job of communicating with George Colony. And he didn’t take me up on reading my blog. Red Hat does not equal linux, and linux is not evil. But, linux in the enterprise datacenter (that is, not your basement or startup or dorm room or gamebox) does equal Red Hat – and competing against a company is what we do for a living. Competing against a social movement we helped to found is a waste of energy, George. My fault for not more effectively communicating.

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