Google's commitment to open-source got a boost today, thanks to the company's newly posted Open Patent Non-Assertion (OPN) pledge.

The OPN pledge outlines Google's passion and commitment to open-source, and promises not to instigate a lawsuit against any parties that use open-source software based on certain patents owned by the company. For now, that only covers 10 patents, though the company says that these are already widely used. And it promises to add more in the future.

Google believes excessive litigation stifles innovation, and calls on other companies to follow its cue:

We hope the OPN Pledge will serve as a model for the industry, and we're encouraging other patent holders to adopt the pledge or a similar initiative. We believe it has a number of advantages:

Transparency. Patent holders determine exactly which patents and related technologies they wish to pledge, offering developers and the public transparency around patent rights.
Breadth. Protections under the OPN Pledge are not confined to a specific project or open-source copyright license. (Google contributes a lot of code under such licenses, like the Apache or GNU GPL licenses, but their patent protections are limited.) The OPN Pledge, by contrast, applies to any open-source software—past, present or future—that might rely on the pledged patents.
Defensive protection. The Pledge may be terminated, but only if a party brings a patent suit against Google products or services, or is directly profiting from such litigation.
Durability. The Pledge remains in force for the life of the patents, even if we transfer them.

While this may be a pretty magnanimous gesture, that doesn't mean Mountain View's a chump. It pledged not to sue first, not that it wouldn't sue at all. That Defensive protection seems pretty clear: Go after them at your own peril. Everyone else, however, can rest easy.

When it comes to patents, Google isn't the only one mulling over transparency and openness. Microsoft's approach to transparency is information. Toward that end, it launched a website today that makes it easy for anyone to search MS patents — all 40,785 of them.

The idea behind Patent Tracker is to offer greater access to information and prevent shady players from "gaming" the system. Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, wrote, "Transparency around patent ownership will help prevent gamesmanship by companies that seek to lie in wait and 'hold up' companies rather than enable a well-functioning secondary market." The tool lets site visitors search Microsoft patents by patent number, patent title and country. It can also reveal who the technical patentholder is, Microsoft itself or a subsidiary.

One thing is obvious — the patent system is broken, and companies are getting fed up with it. Instead of waiting around for things to change, they're starting to take it upon themselves to address the issue. While that may help a bit, it still doesn't take the place of genuine patent reform. Until that happens, you can bet overly litigious behavior will continue to distract businesses and impede innovation.

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