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Novell Tries Striking Delicate Balance on Patents

Novell is taking a new tack with respect to rehabilitating its image with the Penguinistas.

See, it's been between a rock and hard place ever since that deal with Microsoft so loathed by the open source community was announced in November. It has been forced to repeatedly disavow the patent implications that its partner - and source of a nice swat of money - has drawn from the thing.

So when Microsoft claimed Linux and some of its open source programs violate 235 of its patents last week - and held up its agreement with Novell as the template for the royalty payments it wants from everybody - Novell must have wanted to hide under the bed wrapped in a flame mail-retardant blankie.

Wednesday it crawled far enough out from under the bed - at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco - to say that it has teamed up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the lawyer-heavy civil rights group, on software patent reform.

Fortunately or unfortunately - depending on your point-of-view - EFF has an indifferent - if well intentioned - record of getting patents overturned - or acting like much of a rallying point for patent reform. Maybe that'll change.

Novell is the first company - and one with more than 500 patents of its own to boot - to join EFF's three-year-old "Patent Busting Project" and stick some undisclosed amount of money, described as "significant," in its jeans - enough apparently to take the cause overseas. Hey, maybe Microsoft will join. It's argued for patent reform.

Anyway, Novell had its CTO Jeff Jaffe say that, "It is increasingly obvious that software patents are not a meaningful measure of innovation. As a long-time innovator in the industry and a holder of many significant patents, we understand the rationale behind the patent system in general. But we believe that software patent reform is necessary to promote software innovation going forward."

Besides some funding, Novell and EFF are supposed to lobby governments and national and international organizations to develop patent legislation and policies. It said a key target would be the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). "Given the ease," it said, "with which software ideas and code cross borders, a global approach to the issue is required."

© 2008 SYS-CON Media Inc.