Google's latest initiative suggests it's aiming to take the moral high ground when it comes to patent litigation and open source projects,. The company announced today an Open Patent Non-Assertion (OPN) Pledge wherein Google has promised not to sue any open-source software user, distributor or developer, unless sued first.

It is important to note that Google won't be cavalierly offering its entire patent portfolio to everyone with an OSS project; rather, the company will be selectively choosing patents and adding them to a pool of OPN Pledge-worthy intellectual property.

The search giant said it has so far identified 10 patents which will fall under the purview of its OPN initiative. All 10 of those patents are related to MapReduce, a widely-used Google creation for analyzing huge data sets. More patents will follow though, as Google expands its treaty to other areas of its immense portfolio.

Google shares the following points as reasons behind its OPN initiative:

  • 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.

Google has joined a growing mindset that open software (and standards) should be better protected from litigation; IBM, Twitter and even Microsoft are just a few companies who have made similar pledges which afford open-source developers extra leeway when it comes to patents. The company is also encouraging others to adopt similar principles.

In addition to its pledge, Google says it will also continue the battle for patent reform; its hope is to improve the quality of patents thereby reducing frivolous lawsuits. The U.S. patent system is often criticized for being easily abused.