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IBM Pledges Patents to Open Source

IBM said Tuesday it is pledging 500 software patents to developers of open source software so they can develop without fear. The patents are available to those who abide by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and use one of 50 OSI-certified licenses.

The Armonk, N.Y., company said it wants the 500 patents to form a kind of "patent commons," which would include other intellectual property (IP) owners willing to release their patents to open source. Officials said that while IP ownership is essential, technical innovation depends on shared knowledge, standards and collaborative innovation.

"Continuing IBM's legacy of leadership in the strategic use of intellectual property, our pledge today is the beginning of a new era in how IBM will manage intellectual property to benefit our partners and clients," said John Kelly, IBM senior vice president of technology and intellectual property, in a statement. "Unlike the preceding Industrial Economy, the Innovation Economy requires that intellectual property be deployed for more than just providing the owner with freedom of action and income generation."

Adam Jollans, IBM software group chief Linux technologist, told internetnews.com that the patents run the IP gamut, but insists all are useful ones that software developers can use and take advantage of in their applications. He said the announcement is a continuation of IBM's pledge last year not to assert any of its patents against the Linux kernel.

Patents include language processing technologies, user interfaces, operating system and data base interoperability, file-export protocols and dynamic linking processes.

"These aren't patents that we don't use anymore," Jollans said. "These are patents that we believe will be of real use to the open source community."

The explanation raises a thorny issue: the current state of affairs of software patents. Along with Tuesday's statement, IBM announced it was granted more patents -- 3,248 --in 2004 than any other company in the United States for the 12th consecutive year. Officials said IBM is the only company to receive more than 2,000 patents in one year.

Eric Raymond, president and co-founder of the OSI, said the announcement will be much appreciated in the open source community, but that it has ramifications outside that group of people. The decision by IBM, which he calls the 700-pound gorilla of the patent system, to open up some of its IP portfolio proves that the system is broken.

"Their action sends a very loud message that the way they think they can promote software innovation more effectively is by voluntarily surrendering a significant portion of the rights that that system accrues to them; that says that the system is broken and that's a message more people should hear," he said.

He finds IBM's suggestion to form a patent commons personally gratifying, because he said he suggested the same thing back in 1998, but no companies would touch the issue.

Software companies and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) have long maintained the software patent process is necessary for continued innovation in the field.

Nick Godici, USPTO commissioner of patents, has said there's a correlation between U.S. leadership in certain industries and a strong IP system.

Jollans said IBM has to maintain a balancing act to retain IP in a commercial setting while fostering open source innovation.

"[Today's announcement] is a step towards having this balance between innovation in commercial companies, which needs to fund for research and development and innovation in terms of the shared things," he said. "So we think it's a positive step towards encouraging innovation in collaborative communities, as well as continuing with how we continue to encourage innovation with companies, which is what drives a lot of the economy."

A list of the patents is available a IBM's Web site (PDF file).