IBM announces an interesting initiative today that will make it easier for open source programmers and other small coders to put together a range of software, including Web Services. The initiative is just a subtle procedural change, but a welcome one for people with little time and tolerance for bureaucratic red tape: IBM’s wide range of royalty-free patents are now available without formal licensing.
IBM helped form the Open Invention Network in 2005 and contributed a large portfolio of patents to help protect Linux and a selection of other open source projects from patent infringement lawsuits. It was an idea that had been tossed around in the free software community for some time–a free software defensive patent pool–but it didn’t reduce the overhead of developing new software that uses patented software.
On another front, royalty-free patenting has become a rallying cry for software standards developers who can’t (or don’t want to) fight the concept of software patents altogether. A royalty-free patent can be used anywhere to do anything, so it’s compatible with free software. But it still requires the programmer to go through the formality of contacting the patent holder to get a license.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of Sourceforge sites and other projects are going on right now, and I’m certain that few if any of them contact IBM or anybody to ask about patent licensing. Still, that leaves patent infringement as risk that could pop up at any moment.
So now IBM takes the next step and removes the formality of making a contact from patent licensing. By promising not to assert a large group of patents, it effectively makes its technology public-domain across a wide range of areas. In particular, they promise not to assert any patents that cover more than 150 standards in SOA, Web Services, and other web technologies. Along with software patents, numerous patents in the areas of health care and education are released in this way.
IBM still holds on to the patents for defensive purpoes, and the license includes a GPL-like “defensive termination” clause: if a hostile patent-holder tries to assert a patent claim against anyone who is covered by one of these IBM patents, the hostile patent-holder is no longer allowed royalty-free use of IBM’s patents. It’s the standard patenting practice of mutually assured destruction, now extended to cover anyone in the world who is covered by the patents themselves. Large companies as well as small developers will benefit.
IBM got this simple but innovative idea through the nitty-gritty procedure of working with standards bodies and free software developers. Bob Sutor, IBM’s Vice President of Open Source and Standards. said that working with such organizations as the World Wide Web Consortium and OASIS showed IBM how much of a barrier patents were to small software developers. Why not eliminate fussy requirements?
He also said that IBM welcomes others to join them in patent non-assertion statements.