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Van Lindberg is vice president of technology at Rackspace, but he’s also a legal expert with a past career in open source law. So when we met him at the OpenStack Summit in Paris, we wound up talking about Rackspace’s much-publicized war on trolls.

But first we heard about OpenStack, the open source cloud platform which Rackspace helped to launch only four years ago. The platform emerged from Nasa’s work on open source cloud, and has been updated every six months, with a new alphabetic release. The world is warming to the Juno version right now, while the Openstack community is deciding what to put into next year’s Kilo release. Linberg says proudly: “We’ve been running OpenStack in production since Bear!”

Working with prototypes is OK for some, but Lindberg is clear that OpenStack’s priority now is smoothing the edges for more conventional users: “There is an understanding that the vast majority of businesses are not willing to live on the cutting edge,” he tells us. “They want what other people have done before.” So OpenStack is working to woo that middle market: “We will win over the trust of enterprises that are fundamentally conservative.”

Fair-weather friends?
When open source projects reach that stage, cracks can appear, when supporters fight over who is doing most work on the code, and who is just paying lip-service to the project, while backing their own proprietary code.

Service provider Mirantis made some critical remarks at the summit. And some have questioned HP’s commitment

VMware is often accused of lukewarm support, but Lindberg won’t slate proprietary vendors. He thinks a giant move to OpenStack will simply force the laggards into line.

“Maybe in an ideal world these vendors might prefer people to buy only their own thing,”he says, “but they can see there is huge momentum around OpenStack, and they are worried,”

He sees VMware’s move to support OpenStack as a bid to protect its own products. Users are being told they can do OpenStack - but on top of VMware: “Use our hypervisor, and get all this cloudy stuff on top.”

The ones who are actually vulnerable to a charge of paying lipservice are people like Oracle, he says: “Those people are supporting just the API, to catch onto the OpenStack wave without actually dipping themselves into the OpenStack pool - without getting wet.”

There is a real danger to OpenStack from this approach, as there are people who want to change OpenStack from open source code to an API: “People are pushing for OpenStack to become just a standards body.”

The OpenStack community will resist this, he says: “We all get better by contributing to this set of code. There’s real value in being branches off the same tree. Even if the API is perfectly implemented, if it’s not OpenStack code it’s not the same.”

What’s next for OpenStack? The project needs to work on how it handles containers: “There’s a lot of interest in deploying OpenStack in containers - and on deploying containers in OpenStack.”

There’s also a lot of work happening on the network, keeping OpenStack up with developments in software defined networking (SDN): “That’s a real technical challenge.” .

Troll killing
The subject of patents comes up next. Rackspace famously took on a “patent troll” called Rotatable - and put it out of business in Saptember. That’s a public service for others who had been sued for royalties under a patent owned by Rotatable (for technology that rotates an app on a smartphone screen) which turned out to be bogus. And it’s just one of many such patent cases for Rackspace, which makes a habit of challenging the trolls.

“Patent trolls are scum,” says Lindberg. “You can quote me,” he adds, provoking a sharp intake of breath from the PR, who isn’t happy with that kind of word. But really, what he says is circular: the definition of a patent troll is a firm that makes nothing, but extorts money from licences for a patent, which is often not even valid or relevant.

“They are absolute parasites on the industry,” says Lindberg. “They are a clear and present threat to everyone in the business.”

Victims of patent trolls often pay up, without fighthing the claim, because it is cheaper. But a few years back, Rackspace decided to fight: “We decided it is our appropriate policy that we do not pay off patent trolls,” says Lindberg. “We will fight, and we will tell everybody we will do that.

“Since then, we have been fighting and we have been winning, because the stuff that comes up against us is absolute trash.”

Rotatable’s screen rotation patent (US No 6326978) was a case in point. Almost all smartphone apps rotate from portrait to landscape when you turn your phone round. They use libraries provided by Apple or other phone makers to do this. But Rotatable claimed that because of its patent, everyone who makes an app had to pay them.

Rotatable, swivel!
Rackspace has mobile cloud monitoring applications, so it had a letter from Rotatable.
Rotatable demanded $75,000 and said “it is cheaper to pay us off than to fight”, says Lindberg. Rackspace’s response was: “Yes it is. But we are fighting you anyway.”

The troll’s demand was rapidly taken down to $25,000 and then to nothing, but Rackspace sued, the patent was struck down, and Rotatable went out of business.

“We totally eliminated their ability to troll,” he says. “It cost us several hundred thousand dollars. We got none of this back, because they had no assets.

“We will fight patent trolls even when it costs us more,” he declares.

It’s not always as decisive as the Rotatable case, Lindberg tells us: “The day after the patent case, another one of the trolls we had been fighting for years got in touch. They’d been asking for millions and they called up and said ‘If you want to walk away, we are good’.”

In that case, Rackspace let it go: “We said ‘OK, we will not pay you one red cent’”, says Lindberg. “They had other assets so we couldn’t kill the troll. All we could do was win the case. It’s a game of chicken.”

Why doesn’t everyone fight trolls? It’s a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, says Lindberg - where people find it’s against their individual interest to co-operate, even if it would be better for everyone if they did.

“There is an incentive for each company to hold back, to maximise what they get, and minimise their risk,” says Lindberg. “Your personal incentives are to pay off the troll.”

Everyone benefits if a troll is killed, but the one who kills it loses - and a collective action against trolls might face legal problems.

Patent clause defends OpenStack

Is Rackspace against patents though? Surely it has some patents of its own - and will it enforce them? “We have some patents and we do that as an insurance policy,” he explains.

Sometimes companies come to Rackspace, saying “We have 50,000 patents and we want you to pay a percentage of your revenue to us each year,” he says. A portfolio of patents can defend against this, by allowing Rackspace to trade.

“We can’t reasonably challenge every patent, that’s why we have a defensive patent strategy,” he says. “We will let you use our cloudy patents and you let us use yours, and we will duke it out in the market.”

Getting back to the subject, we ask Lindberg if there’s any danger of this sort of thing happening in OpenStack, and he’s pretty sure there isn’t:  “One of the things that is good in is that OpenStack is governed by the Apache licence which has a patent license clause that says, ‘if I contribute code to this project, I also contribute a patent license covering what I have contributed’. This creates a patent commons around this open source project.”

So, the seasoned patent warrior tells me, there’s no danger of aggression in OpenStack, even with the likes of Cisco, IBM and HP taking part - because “everyone is agreed to work on this together”.