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
“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
“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).