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Big Blue Opens the Patent Vault

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; 9:51 AM

Does the open-source movement have a new sugar daddy, or is today's news that IBM is opening access to 500 of its patents a clever scheme aimed at increasing Big Blue's role in developing Linux as an alternative to proprietary software developed by the likes of Microsoft?

The answer to that question will only come over time. But in the short-term, there's no doubt that IBM is reaping a good bit of news coverage this morning, most of it positive.

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First, the details: "The donated patents span a wide range of technologies, from data storage to networking to electronic commerce. The company said the patents could be used by any individual or entity that is developing open-source software, which grew from the work of a handful of programming enthusiasts into a potent challenger to vendors of proprietary software systems such as Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.," The Washington Post explained. "IBM has long led the nation in amassing technology patents and earning billions of dollars by licensing them, but it has made open-source software a key part of its business in recent years. By selling support services to firms that deploy the Linux operating system, IBM and a handful of other companies helped make Linux viable. Today's action could provide an additional boost by addressing what open-source advocates fear is a looming battle with proprietary software companies: patent claims."
The Washington Post: IBM To Help Open-Source Developers (Registration required)

From the IBM press release: "IBM believes the patents it is opening up to open source developers will help foster continued innovation. They also can contribute to open standards and broader interoperability between applications by providing open source developers with a solid base of innovation they can use and share. At LinuxWorld in August, IBM pledged not to assert any of its patents against the Linux kernel. Today's pledge covers thousands of open source projects and programs."
IBM Announcement: IBM Pledges 500 U.S. Patents to Open Source in Support of Innovation and Open Standards

Patent Commons

The Washington Post reports that "Today's action could provide an additional boost by addressing what open-source advocates fear is a looming battle with proprietary software companies: patent claims. Some firms have argued that open-source software has been cobbled together using pieces of code patented by others, leaving users of open-source open to lawsuits. Patents donated to the open-source community would no longer be a threat and would not require developers to engineer around them."

The Wall Street Journal explained more on how IBM sees the patent move working, noting the company (which said as much in its statement) hopes its pledge "will establish a sort of 'patent commons' on which open-source software developers can base their code. The pledge amounts to a promise that IBM, one of the staunchest backers of the Linux operating system among major computer makers, won't enforce any of 500 designated patents against makers of open-source software. IBM has promoted Linux in part to blunt the dominance of Microsoft Corp. as it has tried to spread its operating systems to the corporate-computing world. 'We think this is a radical idea and we hope others follow in our footsteps and add to this,' says John E. Kelly, an IBM senior vice president."
The Wall Street Journal: IBM Makes Open Source Pledge (Subscription required)

More on this theme from the New York Times's article: "The new model for I.B.M., analysts say, represents a shift away from the traditional corporate approach to protecting ownership of ideas through patents, copyrights, trademark and trade-secret laws. The conventional practice is to amass as many patents as possible and then charge anyone who wants access to them. I.B.M. has long been the champion of that formula. The company, analysts estimate, collected $1 billion or more last year from licensing its inventions," the paper said. "The move comes after a lengthy internal review by I.B.M., the world's largest patent holder, of its strategy toward intellectual property. I.B.M. executives said the patent donation today would be the first of several such steps."

Some Internet law experts are already applauding Big Blue's announcement. "This is exciting," Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law School professor and founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society, told the Times. "It is I.B.M. making good on its commitment to encourage a different kind of software development and recognizing the burden that patents can impose." Lessig's wrote about the move in his blog: "This is important news. It further demonstrates IBM's commitment to making free software and open source software development flourish. And it could well inspire others to follow. Ideally there should be a trust that these patents could be contributed into."
The New York Times: IBM To Give Free Access To 500 Patents (Registration required)

A Trickle, Not a Flood

In a statement, IBM said the giveaway was not a one-time event and touted it as the largest patent pledge in U.S. history. But The New York Times noted that while IBM "may be redefining its intellectual property strategy, ... it apparently has no intention of slowing the pace of its patent activity. I.B.M. was granted 3,248 patents in 2004, far more than any other company, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The patent office is announcing today its yearly ranking of the top 10 private-sector patent recipients."

The Times also cautioned that the scope of IBM's plan is not entirely clear: "Just how far I.B.M. intends to go in granting open access to its patents is uncertain. The 500 patents are a small slice of its corporate patent trove of more than 40,000 worldwide and 25,000 in the United States. In recent years, software patents have accounted for about half of the patents granted to I.B.M." And BBC News Online was in the minority of the outlets reporting some negative reaction to the deal: "Florian Mueller, campaign manager of a group lobbying to prevent software patents becoming legal in the European Union, dismissed IBM's move as insubstantial. 'It's just diversionary tactics,' wrote Mr Mueller, who leads nosoftwarepatents.com, in a message on the group's website. 'Let's put this into perspective: We're talking about roughly one percent of IBM's worldwide patent portfolio. They file that number of patents in about a month's time,' he added."
BBC News Online: IBM Frees 500 Software Patents

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