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Part 5: “The Infamous RTLinux Patent”

Aug 12, 1997 — by Rick Lehrbaum — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 1 views

Part 5: “The Infamous RTLinux Patent”

RL: OK, so let's talk about the “infamous” RTLinux patent. What's up with that patent?

Yodaiken: We're formalizing the license right now. What's clear, is that people who are running applications on RTLinux are free and clear. They don't have a problem. They have a license to use the method and to run their applications on it; there will be no fees or royalties. We would like to find some way of using the patent to reinforce GPL, so that people don't take this method and build proprietary systems on it, without some additional license.

RL: Could that potentially be used to block RTAI from being LGPL?

Yodaiken: RTLinux is released under the GPL. I have an agreement with Linus that nobody who uses RTLinux with Linux will have to pay royalties. And we're considering how other licenses are going to work out. I'm very much in favor of making sure that people who are doing GPL work or noncommercial research work don't have to go through any paperwork or pay. We're in the process of formalizing how that's going to work out so that we don't get into trouble later on. And this is an area that nobody knows how all these laws interact. But in the meantime, people who use the system, who use RTLinux, don't have anything to worry about — there's a definite commitment there.

RL: When will the license become defined?

Yodaiken: It's been very late, and I'm sorry about that, but we had delays that were not our doing. I would like it out there and I'm hoping we can get it through the lawyers in a few weeks.

RL: Have you seen a lot of negative reaction to the RTLinux patent?

Yodaiken: I've received a lot of complaints, but also some cheers. (I was happy to see that the week after the patent got trashed on Slashdot, there was an even more hostile mob attacking Linus after the Transmeta announcement.)

Some of the hostility towards the patent is based on principle, people who on principle think software patents are wrong. I respect that position, even though I disagree with it. I think that software patents have obviously been abused, but I think they also have the potential of protecting individual innovators and small companies (like us) from having their work simply appropriated by bigger companies. That's what patents are supposed to do.

Some of the hostility that we see is the same hostility that you see towards GPL — people who don't like the fact that the GPL doesn't permit you to close off open source. I've had bitter complaints about the patent from people who work for huge companies with giant patent portfolios — complaints like “but I want to use this method on our proprietary operating system.” There is an attitude that free software is work that some people will do as a hobby so that others can make some money with it. You know, “thanks for the ideas guys, but now let the professionals take over.”

RL: To you, is GPL a fundamental principal, that you believe very strongly in?

Yodaiken: It is something I believe in strongly — RTLinux is GPL and is available for free download on the net at the FSMLabs web site. On the other hand I'm not a GPL purist. I'm more in Linus Torvald's camp than in Richard Stallman's camp. I see GPL as something that has a lot of good force in it; it restores some balance to skill versus ownership. I very much respect Richard Stallman for his single-minded devotion to free software, because without that we would not have Linux and we would not have this very exciting and innovative software environment that we have right now.

So I'm in favor of GPL, but I don't believe that all software should be GPL'd, I don't believe that GPL is the only way to have open source, and I don't believe that people are necessarily evil if they don't produce GPL software. In my opinion, GPL is a critical part of making sure software is a free market instead of a monopoly. I don't know if Richard intended it that way. GPL has been unfairly criticized as being anti-commerce, but GPL is more anti-monopoly and pro-competition. Since I've been flying a lot, I see what happens when one company owns all the gates and doesn't have to care about customer service. GPL gets rid of the gates, like it says on that T-shirt.

RL: As the copyright holder of RTLinux, you also will license RTLinux for specific proprietary (i.e. non-GPL) uses, right?

Yodaiken: Sure. If people have hardware that has their proprietary innovations in it, and they need low level software to operate that, and they're going to package the software and the hardware, I don't see anything wrong with them selling a modified non-GPL version of RTLinux (the Linux part, of course, stays GPL). Of course, I'd like them to have a license from us when they do that.

The principal of GPL is that if you're distributing software, you must distribute the information in that software, you must tell everybody how it works, and you must allow them to go and tinker with it. But if you're selling a printer, and it's a closed box, and you want to hide how you program the access to the FPGAs in there, I don't necessarily think you should have to release that source publicly. The printer example is to the point, because the Ghostscript folks have been selling non-GPL versions of Ghostscript software to printer manufacturers for many years.

RL: Then why not release it under LGPL, which allows users to have a choice between open and proprietary?

Yodaiken: There's an important distinction here. I think that it's ok for people to buy licenses if they want to get out of GPL. They can buy licenses from the copyright holders. That's a reasonable requirement. You can tell people: if you want to work in the free software world, you can take the free software; but you're out there, you have to participate and you have to give back. If you don't want to be out in the free software world, you can purchase a license and get out of [the GPL restrictions].

RL: Thanks very much!

About Victor Yodaiken: Dr. Victor Yodaiken is President of FSMLabs, a software company headquartered in New Mexico and with developers in the US and Europe. Dr. Yodaiken is the creator of RTLinux. He has been working on systems in both industry and academia since the early 1980s when he was one of the developers of one of the first commercial distributed fault tolerant UNIX systems and wrote one of the first ports of UNIX to the Motorola 68000.

Story navigation:
Part 1: RTLinux — the Past
Part 2: RTLinux — the Present
Part 3: RTLinux — the Future
Part 4: RTLinux and real-time standards
Part 5: “The Infamous RTLinux Patent”

Related stories:
Real Time Linux for Embedded Systems in the Internet Era
An Introduction to RTLinux
FSMLabs releases RTLinux Beta V3.0 Hard RealTime Linux
RTLinux is Patented?
New RTLinux release (V2.2) extends POSIX compliance
FSMLabs developing RTLinux for Compaq Alpha AXP
RTLinux V3.0 beta available for download
RTLinux: a real-time Linux
The RTLinux Manifesto

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