Patents prevent appearance of Linux graphics drivers

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Most hardware on the market is "Designed for Microsoft Windows" and does not work under other operating systems. This is because only Microsoft programmers have access to the specifications of the hardware. Normally, it would be in the interest of hardware vendors to publish specifications, but nowadays they are afraid to publish, because by doing so they would reveal information that could be used against them in patent litigation. Details of some examples in case have been discussed on the Linux Kernel mailing list recently.

(This situation may be speeding up e.g. the Open Graphics Project (it was not available at the time of the discussion). It seeks to provide precisely "fully published specs and open source drivers;" whether there will be significant legal issues at a later stage is an open question.)

Linux-Kernel Mailing List: Patents make Graphic Cards Unfriendly to Open-Source

The mail subject of the Linux Kernel Mailing List discussion was

The core of the problem expressed was that Linux drivers get more and more hit by the increasing lack of documentation for modern graphics hardware which is funded in increasing desire for business protection of the graphics chip vendors. Whilst patents do have prevented open source developers from integrating and providing solutions into their drivers in the past, the present is that the companies themselves feel endangered by patent law based claims on ideas whilst patent law would not help in most cases where offering information on designs could selectively exclude helping the competition whilst being able to providing the needed information to the open source community.

Participating Persons

Historic Background of Computer Technology in the recent 25 years

Around 1980, computer graphics was a wide area split between multiple processor types and graphics designs based upon home computers. With the introduction and spreading of the IBM PC between 1982 and 1989, graphics technology got much more centered around the Intel processor architecture, with an increasing number of vendors that supplied graphics adapters which could be plugged in into the respective state of the art slot system.

Having a nice choice between vendors of modular computer components was the main factor that made personal computers so cheap that they could manage to even get a place in a high percentage of homes and in turn made the general usage of the internet finally possible.

All that happened around 1989 (when the i386 processor architecture got introduced) and up to 1997. At that point there were two now trends: one is the 3D rendering hardware technology that started entering the mass markets, and the so called Asia crisis, which consisted of lots of small South-East Asian PCB manufacturing facilities starting to produce low cost low quality graphics boards. In the end only two major vendors survived those battles for the fastest model at the cheapes prices. Those were ATI and nVidia.

Together, they nowadays serve more than 90% of the market with leaving only a few per cent of market shares to an other competitor, including Intel as a known producer of integrated graphics for mainboard chipsets.


Whilst in in the past there was always some documentation on graphics chipsets availabel for free or for just a minor fee, currently there is a massive trend for graphics companies to not pass along any sort of information on their chip designs, especially for their very latest programming specifications for the 3D rendering units. This is most true for !DirectX 9 and !OpenGL 2.0 smart shading technology, which is the most important technology for getting high performance numbers and best ratings in computer magazine test reports.

For the open source community that is not only a hazard of missing the boat with respect to the new technology, but in several cases it even means that there is not enough information available to supporting a specific chipset up to more than doing slow cpu-based 2D drawing using rather non state of the art interfaces like BIOS calls.

Even in the past there have been problems with software patents, such as the texture compression format called S3TC as invented by a company called S3. Nearly anybody in the market as a chip vendor had a license for his hardware and software, but driving the very same chip with open source was nothing that could be integrated into the projects just because then any user of that software could get sued or even the whole no-cost development project could get in danger of getting sued. It was a patent on an algorithm, no physics involved, and only an idea - nothing less, nothing more - and it hindered open source from keeping up with the state of the art in technology.

The discussion came to a point were the new situation was attributed to the increased usage of software patents in the products. But suprisingly the patent system was far from beeing able to sufficiently protect those software patents. Instead the long existing concept of company secrets was the one that seemed to serve best.

The graphics market has turned to a much more closed business in recent times with the 3D engines as the most criticaly protected part of software patents, resulting in making any sort of open source solutions nearly impossible. Whilst the patent law was not a viable way for protecting the "closed technology" enterprises from getting sued from non market participants, and the patent law was not good enough for protecting their very own software patents from getting spread for the advantage in the chip design of others, there is a visible bad impact of the patent law on integrating well understood solutions into open source projects.

The Discussion

Note added on Richard Stallmann's request: on the mail quoted above, the term "intellectual property" should not have been used because it is propaganda, see

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