The Patent Trap

Is IBM's recent software patent giveaway a generous gift to the public, or is the corporate giant just getting rid of old junk? David McAmis investigates what's on offer.

COMMENTARYIs IBM's recent software patent giveaway a generous gift or the public, or is the corporate giant just getting rid of old junk? David McAmis investigates what's on offer.

IBM recently announced that they were offering 500 of their software patents to the public for use without fear of an infringement lawsuit. But unfortunately this is more of a PR exercise than an actual attempt to share technology with the open source community.

To start, IBM has over 10,000 software patents and adds them at a staggering rate, with over 3,000 granted in 2004 according to the US Patent and Trademark Office. Those 500 patents are just a drop in the bucket. And if you look at the list of patents that IBM is offering, you will see that it isn't exactly giving away prime intellectual property.

For example, I don't think there are that many developers have been dying to get their hands on Patent US6311184, "Sort and merge functions with input and output procedures". Likewise, Patent US6292843, "Quick loading of run time dynamic link library for OS/2" really wasn't on my wish list.

While IBM called this a "first step", it doesn't go far enough. It's like the kid at Christmas time who is asked to give away some of his toys to needy children. Begrudgingly he goes through the toy box and pulls out all the broken toys, things he doesn't want or play with anymore and toys he never really needed in the first place.

IBM applies for and is granted patents at a staggering rate for technologies and techniques that may never have commercial applications. In addition, many patents are registered but cannot withstand a strenuous legal challenge, especially if the patent covers a technology or technique in use before the registrant came across it.

It must have been easy enough for IBM to search through their vast catalogue and find the patents that had no commercial appeal or value, patents that could not be successfully defended or that they just didn't need any more.

And do you think a publicly traded company like IBM would give away really valuable IP? I don't think shareholders would allow them to.

So like the kid digging through his toybox, I think IBM needs a little bit of guidance on what it should be offering to the open source community. It is also hypocritical to appear to support the open source movement when in reality the legal department at IBM is busy churning out patents on everything under the sun, at a rate of 8 a day.

If IBM is serious about opening technology to other parties, it needs to re-evaluate the number of patents it files and instead should consider releasing key technologies under an open source or free software licence. There is nothing to say that they can't still generate revenue and profits from these technologies, but sharing them freely and openly will ensure innovation.

Until then, it is like it's Christmas-time and IBM has just left a broken yo-yo under the Christmas tree for me. Thanks, but no thanks.

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