IBM Opens Its Software Patent Treasure Trove

As part of an ongoing campaign to work toward embracing open source models for its software resources, IBM announced yesterday that it will grant 'universal and perpetual access to certain intellectual property that might be necessary to implement more than 150 standards designed to make software interoperable'. The decision was immediately applauded by developers in the open source movement.

Calling the move the largest of its kind, the Armonk, N.Y., computer giant said lifting restrictions on its trove of patents should help facilitate compatibility between future software applications and computing devices in general, as well as foster more innovative products and services and even reduce patent infringement litigation.

"IBM is sending a message that innovation and industry growth happens in an open, collaborative atmosphere," said Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards. "Users will adopt new technologies if they know that they can find those technologies in a variety of interchangeable, compatible products from competing vendors. We think customers will like this added assurance for the open standards upon which they have come to depend."

The IBM announcement said the intellectual property involved in the decision centered around specifications and protocols that could be involved in industrywide standards set by groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

According to IBM, the move should help clarify the company's position on use of its software patents and encourage their integration into open source projects. Previously, the company noted, adopters of the intellectual property in question needed to secure royalty-free licensing deals from IBM.

The company has posted an Interoperability Specifications Pledge section on its Web site, with more information on the specifics of yesterday's decision.

In a discussion thread on the software developer community site Slashdot, users responded optimistically, if a little guarded, to news of the announcement.

"It is a big enough step for a large IT corporation such as IBM to freely open up so much of their intellectual property," a discussion participant going by the handle tutwabee said. "These standards can be used by open source applications now. That is what really matters when it comes to open source and this issue."

And a responder posting under the online name petrus4 noted (in part): "They're still going to want to make money, of course ... but they're smart enough to realise that a company doesn't really control either half of the supply and demand equation. The consumer declares their demand, and a company that wants to make money and last a long time supplies that demand, rather than trying to change or control what the consumer's demand is."

Naturally, it will take quite a while to understand how much impact yesterday's decision will have on software interoperability standards going forward. However, it's not too early to believe that greater cooperation in the field is a good thing in the long run. This is a step IBM should be commended for taking.

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