Rotten Grapes, IBM and Patents

Opinion: IBM tries to have it both ways with supporting both patents and open source. And you know what, there's nothing wrong with that.

IBM has recently opened the doors for open-source programmers to freely use 500 of its patents in their software so long as their projects meets the Open Source Initiative definition of open-source software.

Good news, yes?

Not according to some people who are as upset at IBM as if IBM CEO Sam Palmisano has suggested using kittens for brake pads.

Florian Mueller, spokesman for the European, makes the point that IBM is a champion of patents, and that this move is nothing more than a crass move to curry favor with the open-source community while still pursuing its patent-mongering ways.

Well, yes, thats right.

As irony would have it, on the very day that IBM announced that it was opening up some of its patents, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced its list of the top 10 organizations receiving patents for 2004. At the top of the list by a big margin, with 3,248 patents was… wait for it: IBM.

Theres no surprise there. IBM usually leads the patent parade.

So whats going on here? IBM, which has done very well by both Linux and with its patents, is trying to have it both ways.

And, much as I oppose software patents, from a short-term business viewpoint, its hard to argue with IBMs approach. Looking at it from the long-term, I think theyre dead wrong, but its their IP (intellectual property), not mine.

After all, theres nothing that says you cant support open source and patents.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read about patents threatening the evolution of Web services.

Robert Gerstein a partner in Chicago-based Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP, an IP law firm points out, "IBMs critics seem to believe that the patent system inconsistent with open source development. That simply is not true.

"IBM has apparently decided that the technology it originally developed for itself and patented can now be best fully developed in the open source community," Gerstein continued. "IBM may also be doing that for favorable publicity, because it knows it may be difficult to enforce some or all of those patents or for other business reasons. Whatever the reason, open source developers in this area will benefit from IBMs decision."

Exactly. We shouldnt throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Yes, in an ideal world, we wouldnt have software patents, but so long as were stuck with them, at least IBM is doing some good with them.

As Gerstein said, its not "fair to charge IBM with hypocrisy for enforcing other patents or working to strengthen the patent system. Just because IBM decided to give away some of its technology does not mean it has to give it all away."

That wont stop me wishing from that they would, or at the least, that theyll stop patenting every idea in sight and pushing for stronger patents in Europe. Still, at least IBM is doing some good for the open-source community with its patents; thats more, far more, than most companies. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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