IBM TO GIVE FREE ACCESS TO 500 PATENTS
IBM TO GIVE FREE ACCESS TO 500 PATENTS
2005-01-13 at 10:31:00 am #11271
I.B.M. to Give Free Access to 500 Patents
I.B.M. plans to Announce Today that it is Making 500 of its software patents freely available to anyone working on open-source projects, like the popular Linux operating system, on which programmers collaborate and share code.
The new model for I.B.M., analysts say, represents a shift away from the traditional corporate approach to protecting ownership of ideas through patents, copyrights, trademark and trade-secret laws. The conventional practice is to amass as many patents as possible and then charge anyone who wants access to them. I.B.M. has long been the champion of that formula. The company, analysts estimate, collected $1 billion or more last year from licensing its inventions.
The move comes after a lengthy internal review by I.B.M., the world’s largest patent holder, of its strategy toward intellectual property. I.B.M. executives said the patent donation today would be the first of several such steps.
John Kelly, the senior vice president for technology and intellectual property, called the patent contribution “the beginning of a new era in how I.B.M. will manage intellectual property.”
I.B.M. may be redefining its intellectual property strategy, but it apparently has no intention of slowing the pace of its patent activity. I.B.M. was granted 3,248 patents in 2004, far more than any other company, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The patent office is announcing today its yearly ranking of the top 10 private-sector patent recipients.
I.B.M. collected 1,300 more patents last year than the second-ranked company, Matsush*ta Electric Industrial of Japan. The other American companies among the top 10 patent recipients were Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology and Intel.
I.B.M. executives say the company’s new approach to intellectual property represents more than a rethinking of where the company’s self-interest lies. In recent speeches, for example, Samuel J. Palmisano, I.B.M.’s chief executive, has emphasized the need for more open technology standards and collaboration as a way to stimulate economic growth and job creation.
On this issue, I.B.M. appears to be siding with a growing number of academics and industry analysts who regard open-source software projects as early evidence of the wide collaboration and innovation made possible by the Internet, providing opportunities for economies, companies and individuals who can exploit the new model.
“This is exciting,” said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society. “It is I.B.M. making good on its commitment to encourage a different kind of software development and recognizing the burden that patents can impose.”
I.B.M. has already made substantial contributions to open-source software projects in the last few years. The company has been the leading corporate supporter of Linux. It donated computer code worth more than $40 million to an open-source group, Eclipse, which offers software tools for building programs. Last year, I.B.M. gave to an open-source group a database program called Cloudscape, which cost the company $85 million to develop.
Those past contributions, however, have gone mainly to projects that serve to make Linux – fast becoming a viable alternative to the operating systems Windows from Microsoft and Solaris from Sun Microsystems – more attractive to corporate customers. In that respect, supporting Linux helps to undermine I.B.M.’s rivals and can be seen as a smart tactic for I.B.M. The company’s commercial software strategy is focused largely on its WebSphere software, which runs on top of operating systems.
Today’s move by I.B.M. is not aimed at a specific project, but opens access to 14 categories of technology, including those that manage electronic commerce, storage, image processing, data handling and Internet communications.
“This is much broader than the contributions we’ve made in the past,” said Jim Stallings, vice president for standards and intellectual property at I.B.M. “These patents are for technologies that are deeply embedded in many industry uses, and they will be available to anyone working on open-source projects including small companies and individual entrepreneurs.”
I.B.M. executives said they hoped the company’s initial contribution of 500 patents would be the beginning of a “patent commons,” which other companies would join. I.B.M. has not yet approached other companies, Mr. Stallings said.
I.B.M. will continue to hold the 500 patents. But it has pledged to seek no royalties from and to place no restrictions on companies, groups or individuals who use them in open-source projects, as defined by the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit education and advocacy group. The group’s definition involves a series of policies allowing for free redistribution, publication of the underlying source code and no restrictions on who uses the software or how it is used.
Just how far I.B.M. intends to go in granting open access to its patents is uncertain. The 500 patents are a small slice of its corporate patent trove of more than 40,000 worldwide and 25,000 in the United States. In recent years, software patents have accounted for about half of the patents granted to I.B.M.