Staff Writer, CNET News.com
IBM has decided to let open-source developers use 500 software patents without fear of an infringement lawsuit, a new step in its encouragement of the collaborative programming philosophy.
It is a small but significant measure for a company with major efforts to patent its research, then license those patents. Still, the vast majority of IBM's 10,000 software patents in the United States aren't being shared so freely.
The move follows that of Linux seller Red Hat, a comparatively small company that objects to software patents but allows unfettered use of its own smaller portfolio in open-source software. And Novell, the second-largest Linux seller, has vowed to use its own patent portfolio to deter and counter legal attacks against open-source software.
IBM is a vocal champion of Linux and has hundreds of programmers contributing to the development of the operating system. In August, the company pledged not to use its patent portfolio to attack Linux, and in October, the company named former microprocessor chief John Kelly to lead a new intellectual-property division.
Some fear that patents could hurt Linux, the best-known success of open-source software. A Hewlett-Packard executive warned in 2002 that he expected Linux foe Microsoft to launch patent attacks against Linux and other open-source projects, and Microsoft has begun lavishing more attention on its patent-licensing program. And a company that sells insurance to pay Linux users' legal costs, if they're sued for patent infringement, says Linux potentially violates as many as 283 patents—60 held by IBM.
Patented software could throw a monkey wrench into Linux and other open-source software. The General Public License (GPL), which governs Linux and many other open-source projects, prohibits use of software covered by a patent license that requires royalty payments. Finding such encumbered patents in open-source software could, at a minimum, force programmers to write replacement software and customers to change to the new version.
When it comes to computing patents, IBM is king. The corporation has 40,000 patents worldwide and 25,000 in the United States. In 2004, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) granted IBM another 3,248—more than any other company for the 12th consecutive year—and IBM plans to try to maintain its lead.
Hewlett-Packard was in fourth place with 1,775 patents in 2004.
IBM said the patents it's liberating cover a broad range of technologies, including linking operating system processes dynamically; protocols for exporting files; interoperability between databases and operating systems; language processing; user interfaces; and the Internet. A full list is available for download.
IBM called Tuesday's move a first step.
The company plans to grant royalty-free access to more patents in the future for open-source use, a representative said Monday. It also plans to release patents for use in open standards—a move that could make it easier to embrace such standards within open-source and proprietary software.
Open-source programs are built by cooperating developers who may freely see, modify and redistribute the software. It stands in stark contrast to proprietary software such as Microsoft's Windows operating system, IBM's WebSphere business software and Oracle's database.
Kelly said in a statement that he hopes other companies will follow suit.
"Through measures such as today's pledge, we will increasingly use patents to encourage and protect global innovation and interoperability through open standards, and we urge others to do so as well," Kelly said. "We will work with the U.S. PTO and other commentators and policy makers to ensure that the U.S. patent system continues to evolve to address the challenges of the innovation economy."
IBM will allow royalty-free use of patents in any software covered by the Open Source Initiative's Open Source Definition, the company said.