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IBM patent giveaway too little, critics say

By , NetworkWorld.com
January 14, 2005 02:48 PM ET

NetworkWorld.com - Patent powerhouse IBM last week unlocked access to 500 of its software patents for the open source community, generating mixed reactions from industry watchers.


Forum: Too little, too late?
What do you think? Discuss the IBM patents and open source.

While IBM's move could help users get new open source products faster by removing development roadblocks, open source advocates and patent watchers ultimately would like to see companies such as IBM change their overall software patenting strategies. At the center of the issue is current U.S. patent practice, which grants what critics say are overly broad patents on trivial or abstract processes. The quagmire of patents that developers have to weed through to avoid infringement is unmanageable, and the result for corporate users is slower product innovation and delays in standards progress.

"I say, thanks very much. It's a good start, but it's certainly not the finish," says Bruce Perens, open source evangelist and a founder of the Open Source Initiative. The patents IBM has chosen to make available to the open source world are just a small fraction of its portfolio, he says.

With IBM's pledge, the technologies covered by 500 of its software patents are available royalty-free to companies or individual developers working on open source software, removing the threat of a patent lawsuit by IBM. The patents cover a broad range of technologies, including data encryption, caching, compression and language processing.

Opening access to these technologies is an effort to help foster innovation, says Douglas Heintzman, director of technical software strategy at IBM.

In addition to forfeiting potential revenue IBM might have earned by licensing its technologies to open source developers, IBM assumes the burden of maintaining the 500 patents in question - which costs more than $1 million each year, Heintzman says.

Of course, it's not all sacrifice for IBM.

IBM doesn't deny that. "We believe that this will promote and drive innovation in our marketplace. Certainly our company will benefit as the rate of innovation accelerates," Heintzman says.

Given that a significant portion of IBM's business is related to open source, primarily Linux, the decision to grant patent amnesty obviously is motivated in part by self-interest, says Stephen O'Grady, a senior analyst at RedMonk. "If Linux as an operating system can be enhanced or at least have some of the concerns around patent infringement removed, certainly IBM stands to benefit," he says.

While the contribution is significant, it's not entirely unexpected, adds Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit legal services organization in New York working toward patent system reform. Most legal observers would have presumed before the announcement that IBM would not sue, at least in the near term, the makers of open source products off of which it is making money, Ravicher says.

To IBM's credit, by granting access to any open source developer, not just those with which it partners, the company is allowing broader access than what had been presumed, Ravicher says.

Linux creator Linus Torvalds says IBM's move is a good first step toward solving some of the problems with software patents. "Will this make patent problems go away? Obviously not. Would I have preferred that IBM open all their patents and speak out against software patents in general? Hey, sure," Torvalds wrote in an e-mail interview. "But no, that's not how things work. I'm pragmatic."

Not everyone sees any benevolence in IBM's move.

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