IBM seen challenging software industry with release of patents

IBM Corp. this week took the next step in its efforts to spur development and adoption of open-source applications by pledging to offer developers free, unfettered access to 500 of its massive collection of software patents. The company said it won’t threaten developers who use the technology covered in the announcement with patent infringement lawsuits as long as resulting products conform to the Open Source Initiative’s (OSI) definition of open-source software.

By making 500 software patents freely available to open-source developers, IBM is once again putting its money where its mouth is by offering its technology to the open-source community. The latest move follows several other donations to the open-source software movement. In 2001, the company contributed $40 million worth of software technology to the establishment of Eclipse, the set of Java-based open-source development tools for creation of Web services. Last year, the company gave its Java-based Cloudscape database, which it valued at $85 million, to the Apache Software Foundation. The 500 patents made available this week are worth about $10 million to the company.

"We’ve been moving in this direction for a while," says Bob Sutor, vice president of standards at IBM. "At LinuxWorld last year, there was a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt that as the leading patent-holder in the industry we would assert our patents against the Linux OS. But instead, we made a non-assertion pledge. This represents one of the real proof points in open source, where we can stress collaboration."

Analysts expect IBM to continue to make waves in the open-source community, not only by putting its formidable weight behind a "share and share alike" philosophy toward its intellectual property, but by showing its competitors that it’s not afraid to free up its patents in the name of technology innovation.

"By releasing this initial set of patents and leading the development of a proposed ‘patent commons’ (IBM hasn't identified other participants), the company encourages the rest of the software industry, and many mainstream users of IT, to treat open-source technologies and companies with respect… Above all, IBM’s latest move puts new pressure on Microsoft — indirectly casting it as a proprietary alternative to the industry's open-software movement," writes Yefim Natis, a vice president at Gartner in an analyst memo.

In a prepared statement, Dr. John E. Kelly, IBM’s senior vice president of technology and intellectual property, said the company’s pledge "is the beginning of a new era in how IBM will manage intellectual property to benefit our partners and clients…the Innovation Economy requires that intellectual property be deployed for more than just providing the owner with freedom of action and income generation."

IBM’s announcement coincides with the release of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) annual list of top U.S. patentees for 2004. IBM sits at the top of that list with 3,248 patents earned, or 1,314 more than any other company. IBM has about 40,000 computer-related patents worldwide and 25,000 in the U.S, of which about 10,000 cover the company’s software technology.

The list of the 500 patents pledged to open source developers is available on IBM’s Web site: .

The technologies are wide ranging, covering interoperability features of operating systems and databases, as well as Internet, user interface and language processing technologies. Specific patents cover things like "message queue processing among cooperative processors having significant speed differences" … "remote storage management mechanism and method," and "tracing technique for application programs using protect mode addressing."

"The technologies [covered by this initiative] are intentionally broad, and were chosen for their breadth," says Sutor. "We wanted to touch databases, operating systems, video and imaging, and other software. We felt these would be of interest across the broadest set of open-source developers."

Despite the appearance of largesse, IBM will not take a big hit in revenue because the patented technologies are deeply embedded in operating systems and communications middleware, but the move sends a clear signal to its competitors, writes Gartner’s Natis.

"IBM’s core moneymaking differentiators remain proprietary, [but] by referring to the OSI, IBM casts it as the definitive open-source organization," he writes. "IBM competitors are now under pressure to respond. For most, only one response is viable: endorse this movement and therefore endorse IBM as the industry leader."

About the Author

John S. Webster is senior editor of Application Development Trends.

Upcoming Events