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IBM Extends Patent Pledge

IBM is expanding the scope of its intellectual property openness. Big Blue has added over 150 key standards specifications and protocol implementations to its list of items it's willing to share in an effort to make software more interoperable.

According to IBM, developers that wanted access to the 150 specifications and protocols previously needed to acquire a royalty license from IBM. Now IBM is offering universal and perpetual access to developers.

"This action simplifies and makes more consistent the intellectual property situation around these important infrastructure specifications," Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, wrote in a blog post. "This pledge applies to all implementors of the standards on all platforms."

Among the standards implementation that IBM is opening up are key Web services, semantic Web, SOA, XML specifications and protocols. Many of those protocols and specifications are either up for review or already accepted as standards by standards bodies such as W3C or OASIS.

So can vendors patent standards?

IBM spokesperson Ari Fishkind said that vendors cannot patent a standard itself, but there is sometimes technology that a standard may somehow need or touch on when being implemented.

"Under the rules of many standards bodies, the cooperating vendors must agree to let anyone use any of their technology related to the standard on a royalty-free basis," Fishkind told internetnews.com.

"Under certain and rare conditions, a vendor may still assert their intellectual property rights. But the typical process of obtaining a royalty-free license had involved a little bit of formality and bureaucracy. So today's pledge makes the possibility of litigation even more remote, and makes it easier for people to adopt common, open standards."

Fiskind argued that IBM's move isn't just about IBM. He noted that by saying that anyone who sues anyone, not just IBM, on matters related to that common standard will lose their privileges. So in effect IBM is encouraging industry-wide good behavior.

IBM shareholders need not worry about IBM's apparent philanthropy. Fishkind noted that IBM wasn't receiving revenue from these patents anyway because the IBM technology associated with the specifications and protocols were available to people on a royalty-free basis.

Over two and a half years ago, IBM issued its open source patent pledge, which offered an IBM commitment not to assert its open source-related patents. The move to open up the patent usage surrounding the 150 protocols, according to Fishkind, is because IBM felt the time was now right since so many people are using Web services to implement SOA.

"If this accelerates the adoption of SOA, that's very good as far as we are concerned," Fishkind noted.

Professor Eben Moglen founder of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) is also in favor of opening up of patent usages without licensing restrictions.

"SFLC welcomes IBM's action, which is a further step by the industry's leading patent-holder to restore sanity to the interaction of standards processes and the inadequately controlled patent system," Moglen wrote in an e-mail to internetnews.com.

"This step will result in less expensive, more capable, higher reliability software that interoperates naturally and repels monopoly."