Web Services Patents for Sale

IT players may cooperate in maintaining standards-based momentum.

As a member of eWEEKs editorial board, Ive been one of a group of voices thats jointly encouraged the industry to keep the Internet a patent-free zone—or at least, a fee-free zone, with any patented technologies adopted on the Internet only on the grounds that they become freely licensed to all users. Weve urged that vendors avoid the temptation to create proprietary refinements of standards-based technologies such as XML. Weve warned against the hazards of abusing the patent process by claiming the "invention" of the obvious or the commonplace—a practice that I further discussed in my letter of just last week.

I regret to observe, therefore, that fundamental mechanisms of Web services are now at risk of becoming patent-law footballs, potentially slowing whats been one of the most successful transformations of application architecture and development practice that weve seen in many years. A planned Dec. 6 patent-rights auction by Commerce One in Santa Clara, California, has inspired a strange-bedfellows alliance that reportedly includes Google, Oracle, Sun, and others who may soon contribute to a pool of funds that might be administered by the non-profit CommerceNet in Mountain View, Calif. If successful in mounting the high bid at the Commerce One bankruptcy-settlement sale, the group might then effectively retire the companys patents on basic Web services concepts.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read Peter Coffees Oct. 18 column entitled, "Web Services Edge Cuts Both Ways".

This forced sale comes, ironically, on the heels of continuing signs that major IT players are actually capable of playing nicely with each other on the field of Web services, with vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and BEA demonstrating high-profile cooperative efforts to persuade major buyers that Web services is a worthy target for investment. Reminding us that success has a thousand fathers, IT players in every part of the world are quick to assert their Web services leadership—while key IT buyers such as the U.S. Department of Defense cross critical thresholds in accepting Web services as a real-time infrastructure.

Its additionally ironic to look back to four years ago, when Commerce One was very much enjoying its place in the sun, and CEO Mark Hoffman talked about "a shakeout going on." Hoffman was right, and was also right about the continuing importance of working with a variety of operating systems rather than targeting a Microsoft-only environment—and about the widespread enterprise recognition of the need to find supply-chain economies. Web services are the example of choice for those who assert the continued importance of IT innovation and the need for continued growth of network capability and developer productivity. The all-important question of whats the "killer application" for Web services continues to be asked, but increasingly it is being effectively answered by the synergetic mix of online offerings and ubiquitous connections.

Lets hope that whatever happens on Dec. 6 doesnt turn out to hinder that progress.

The eWEEK Excellence Awards for 2004 are now accepting entries. The deadline for submitting entries is Jan. 31, 2005. For more information go to www.excellenceawardsonline.com.

Put your own Web services issues on my radar at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com

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