IBM Corp. plans to announce today that it is giving away rights to 500 of its software patents to help a growing community of developers who build software collaboratively and distribute it for free.
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.
Unlike those systems, open-source software such as Linux is free, and anyone can use it, modify it or build on it. But no version of the software itself can be sold.
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.
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.
Microsoft, however, has embarked on a campaign to quickly acquire as many software patents as possible. The effort is being led by Marshall Phelps, who spent more than 20 years at IBM and was the architect of its patent strategy.
Microsoft has warned customers that open-source software could infringe on Microsoft's patents. Yesterday, the company declined to comment on the IBM move.
Open-source advocates have acknowledged that because open-source software evolves from contributions by loose confederations of independent developers, it is sometimes hard to ensure that other patents are not violated. When such violations become known, the community quickly rewrites the offending portions of the code.
Beyond litigation, patents held by proprietary firms could be used to block open-source software's ability to interact with those software systems, rendering Linux less useful.