IBM’s Patent Pledge Leaves Unresolved Issues, Say Analysts

International Business Machines announced today that it plans to provide free access to the information in 500 company patents to individuals and groups working on open-source software.

The company said this could be the largest pledge of patents of any kind and applies to any individual, community or company working on or using open-source software as meets the standards of the non-profit entity the Open Source Initiative.

Banking on Services

IBM’s pledged patents cover operating systems, databases, methods for testing programming interfaces and cursive text recognition. In a press release, IBM specifically mentioned patents covering dynamic linking processes for operating systems and one related to file-export protocols.

IBM earns 50 percent of its revenue from services, which is what it is counting on with open source customers who they expect will require outside help to manage their systems.

Analysts say that while the move may be a good marketing strategy for IBM, questions remain about the broader picture.

Marketing Value

“IBM is doing this because it’s very invested in promoting open source,” Laura Didio, senior analyst, Yankee Group, told LinuxInsider. “The open-source community will embrace IBM wholeheartedly because of it.”

“It’s great that they’re doing this…. It will spur development,” Didio continued. “But it doesn’t make for totally blue skies and smooth sailing. You still have to have interoperability and integration with other OS environments, and it’s not just Windows, Mac and Unix. What about all the different flavors of Linux? IBM is not doing this because it wants to be the Mother Teresa of the IT world.”

Didio also questioned which patents IBM was sharing and said that the company still is not indemnifying its open source customers against potential patent infringement lawsuits.

“People have to realize what they’re not getting. IBM is saying, ‘You can do with it what you will, but we’re not responsible for what you do with it,'” Didio said.

“The real end game here is the competition between the two industry giants, IBM and Microsoft,” Didio said.

Balanced View

Open-source advocate Bruce Perens was underwhelmed.

“I think it’s nice to have them open their patents for use with open source. It’s a good start,” Perens said. “But I wonder why these particular 500? I doubt they are all of the software patents that IBM owns.”

He also questioned the timing of the move. “Yesterday, we had 61 members of the European Parliament ask to restart the software patenting debate from zero. I wonder if this is an effort to convince Europeans that software patenting will be compatible with open source and that it will be okay to go ahead with it,” Perens said.

Stacey Quandt, senior business analyst and open source practice leader for the Robert Frances Group, had a similarly balanced view of IBM’s plan.

“Some of the patents may be obsolete or cover a common practice,” she said. “For example, one of the patents covers post-dump garbage collection. IBM probably didn’t lose any sleep when it thought about releasing it and others to the open source community.

“While some of the patents may prove useful to the open source community, the message IBM is sending to the software industry is that it supports open-source innovation and licensing.”

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