A Personal Plea on PatentsFebruary 2nd, 2010 at 8:57
As OpenSim becomes more stable, many people are looking into developing new businesses on top of it. That is great! An ecosystem of businesses is exactly what we want to happen, if OpenSim is to fulfill its potential. However, let me add a word of caution in the form of a personal plea regarding doing businesses on top of OpenSim: be careful with what you patent, or you may put yourself out of your business before you even create it by placing obstacles on the way of the infrastructure.
Ever wondered why it’s taking so long for a web of virtual worlds / 3D web to emerge? Here’s a fact: there’s plenty of wonderful game engines and MMO platforms that have one thing in common: they are all proprietary. Not only that, but they aim at being the only game in town, all 20 of them. Some of them are very successful in their own businesses, but none of them will become the common infrastructure for interoperable virtual worlds. Infrastructures must be owned by everyone and no one in particular.
Enter OpenSim. At this point, OpenSim is one of only two open source virtual world platforms with which one could imagine developing that much needed infrastructure for immersive interconnected virtual worlds to bloom. (The other one is OpenCobalt, a Smalltalk platform; Sun’s Wonderland has just been discontinued by Oracle, and its future is unclear) OpenSim has been created from day 1 with the goal of becoming the Apache server for virtual worlds. It’s still young, so there’s still a few things to do in order to accomplish that goal. Please let us finish! Don’t start creating obstacles by filing patents that are infrastructural in nature. Those patents will be a nuisance, and ultimately useless for your business because one of two things will happen: either (1) what you patent is so important that it will be critically missing from the common infrastructure because of your patent, therefore the infrastructure will never happen; or (2) what you patent can be done in a different way, in which case that other way will make it to the common infrastructure, and your patent-based business will miss the point.
I know that investors, before they invest, and managers in large companies, want to know where your own beef is when you’re dealing with an open source platform. In the US, “beef” usually means protected Intellectual Property in the form of patents. Some large companies are particularly aggressive when it comes to filing patents on absolutely everything for which a patent hasn’t been filed yet, no matter where the idea came from, and no matter the merits of the claims; in those companies, employee compensation is, in large part, based on the number of patents filed, so the employees quickly learn how to play the patent game (this practice is an aberration, and one of the reasons why I decided to take a job in Academia). I don’t have a simple solution for this need to patent, but just this general advice: patent OpenSim-related infrastructure at your own peril. For starters, you won’t gain any friends among some of us core developers (me, at least). You’re putting the whole effort in jeopardy. I will use every resource I have available in the UC in order to shoot your merit-less patent applications down. Second, I can guarantee you that if something you patent is with merit but critical, I won’t stop until I find another way of doing it that doesn’t step over your patent.
What else can you do to make your investors/managers happy? Here are some options:
a) Code faster. Be the first to have the implementation of something important, then you can try to grab the market before the open source solution comes around. But no patents, please — see above.
b) Create interesting, engaging services. If people like what you provide, they will come.
c) If you really must, patent methods for doing something faster/cheaper/better. Optimizations of published processes are always desired by potential customers.
d) Again if you really must, patent specific applications of the infrastructure that focus on the vertical that you are trying to make a business on.
Needless to say that this post is my own view of things and in no way reflects any official position of the OpenSim core developers.