In what I think is a fantastic move, IBM announced today that it is granting “universal and perpetual” access to certain patents potentially relevant to the implementation of more than 150 specifications for standards relating to software interoperability. IBM has posted a very thorough FAQ on the pledge, so I will spare you further details in this post.
Of course, this is not the first time IBM has made such a move. Recall that back in 2004 IBM pledged not to assert patents in its portfolio against the Linux kernel. IBM then followed that up in 2005 with a pledge to allow royalty-free use of some 500 of its patents by users and developers of software licensed under OSI-approved open source software licenses.
In relation to these past pledges (and those by other companies), the current pledge is notable not just for its breadth (the 150 specifications include the likes of ODF, SAML, SOAP and the WS-* standards) but also for its simplicity. IBM has essentially done away with the practice of forging individual royalty-free patent licensing agreements with each individual or group interested in developing an implementation around one of the 150 standards (a fairly inefficient practice) and has instead made an irrevocable covenant open to all parties interested in undertaking such development.
Talk about reduced barriers to entry (and collaboration)! Open source software is not the only area that can flourish through a collaborative atmosphere. Open standards and specifications also benefit from collaboration. And I would expect innovation and growth around each of these specifications to increase as a result of IBM’s pledge.
As an aside, I cannot help but recall back to 2004 – you remember, the days when GPLv3 was but a glimmer in Richard Stallman’s eye and the SCO v. IBM case was, well, something people were actually still talking about. During a speech I attended by Eben Moglen on the SCO case at Columbia University, Moglen noted that the copyright threat posed by the SCO case and those like it was likely no threat at all. He cited the open source community’s ability to re-implement the functionality found in any code that happened to infringe a third party copyright. While I generally tend to agree with this line of reasoning (as copyrights merely cover implementations of ideas and not ideas themselves, and implementations are fairly easy to come by), using the same reasoning with patent infringement is another matter (as patents protect ideas themselves). During the Q&A following the speech, I asked Moglen how FOSS would combat the growing threat from software patents. He replied that FOSS would no doubt “hunker down” under patent non-assertion agreements and pledges from large patent holders. In hindsight, of course, Moglen was right on. I do, however, wonder what he knew then of the pledges forthcoming from IBM and others. ;-)
In any case, I applaud IBM and the others who have made similar pledges in their efforts to foster openness, collaboration, innovation and growth through the reduction of the barriers to entry posed by patents.