Does Big Blue Speak Open Source With a Forked Tongue?

Few companies have been bigger open source proponents than IBM, but recent moves have some in the open source community crying foul and now the EU is looking into it.

IBM has traditionally been one of the more enlightened companies when it comes to open source. They have turned their support for Linux, Apache and other open source technologies into a solid profit engine.

But now with some open source companies looking to move into the lucrative mainframe software business, IBM is exerting its patents portfolio to stymie the open source players. There have been formal complaints filed with the European Commission and now some prominent open source community members are saying when it comes to open source IBM has gone back on its word.

The most recent incident revolves around a small French-based open source software startup called TurboHercules SAS. They received a rather testy letter from Mark Anzani, CTO of IBM's mainframe unit exerting certain patents that IBM holds around mainframes, mainframe emulators and such.

Two of the patents asserted were specifically part of the 500 patents that IBM committed to not asserting against open source software just a few years ago. The Hercules folks made a formal complaint to the EU about monopoly practices. The TurboHercules complaint is allegedly one of several before the EU regarding IBM right now.

Florian Mueller, an open source advocate and founder of the NoSoftwarePatents campaign published a blog post today blasting IBM for going back on its word and accusing the company of supporting open source only as long as its own business interests are served. He is calling on the EU to take action and asking the free and open source software (FOSS) community to bring down their wrath on IBM.

OK, so before we all go out and throw away all of the cool code that IBM and its employees have contributed to several open source projects, lets all take a deep breath. First of all IBM is a very big company. I can tell you from personal experience that the left hand doesn't always know what the right hand is doing over there. It could be that the mainframe unit and Mr. Anzani in particular were not aware of what they were stepping into here. They might not have realized that with all of the patents listed in their letter to Turbo Hercules, that two (of 162 in the letter) were on the do not enforce list.

Also not to throw water on Mr Mueller, but what do you expect from the guy who started the NoSoftwarePatents campaign to say about a company exerting its rights pursuant to patents? Do you expect a leopard to change its spots?

But beyond that here is another thought. Don't you think it is naive to expect IBM to do anything against their own best business interests? They are a for profit company with shareholders to answer to. Yes they have recognized that open source software affords them an opportunity to make even greater profits. But the mainframe business is a 25 billion dollar business for IBM. That is an awful lot of money on the table. Before they are going to let potential competitors into that market, of course they are going to try and grab the biggest piece of the pie for themselves. Only when they see that it will be more profitable to let others into the market will they do it.  I can't say I blame them.

So does IBM speak with a forked tongue on open source? No, I think they are consistent and will always do what is best for IBM. Expecting them to do anything more or less is silly.

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