DAVID CANTON – For the London Free Press – February 12, 2005
The open-source movement has had a terrific start to the New Year. Within two weeks , the open-source community received gifts from both IBM and Sun Microsystems. And these gifts re-ignited a debate over whether patents on software should even be allowed.
Open-source software is software where the source code, or human readable code, is readily available, such as Linux. Users are generally free to modify the software as they like — but with the caveat they must share their changes with all users.
On Jan. 11, IBM announced it would pledge open access to 500 IBM software patents. This means that anyone working on or using open-source software can use the 500 IBM patents royalty-free.
The patents cover a wide range of technologies, from database and storage management to linking processes for operating systems to e-commerce.
IBM says there is an incredible amount of innovation that can come from the open- source community. It hopes to foster a “patent commons” of shared knowledge that will greatly assist in the growth of further innovations.
John E. Kelly, IBM’s senior vice-president for technology and intellectual property, said the company’s pledge “is the beginning of a new era in how IBM will manage intellectual property to benefit our partners and clients.”
IBM’s news release stated this pledge wouldn’t be a one-time event. IBM also commented that it hoped other companies would follow suit. Its wish was answered.
On Jan. 25, Sun announced it would release more than 1,600 of its patents associated with Solaris 10 under a Common Development and Distribution Licence (CDDL). The patents will be useable by developers working on products distributed under Sun’s CDDL.
Sun’s news release stated that its goal in releasing these patents was to “help users get new open source products and technologies to market faster without having to obtain patent licences from Sun.”
There has been much speculation as to why these two patent-wielding powerhouses have changed their strategies from expending major efforts to patent and protect their research to offering up large numbers of patents to the open-source initiative royalty- free.
Was their only reason to foster innovation through the open-source effort or do they have other motives?
IBM sells mainly services, not hardware. This gift to open source may be expected to pay for itself in new business for IBM.
Sun’s unique licensing (CDDL) of only patents related to Solaris 10 to open-source users may have been made with the intention to create a group of developers that will help push this new platform forward and give their clients added value.
This release may have been made in an effort to take market share away from Linux distributors. Sun’s timing may be partly the result of gamesmanship with IBM, as its chief executive office reportedly got a jab at IBM, calling IBM’s pledge of patents merely an effort “to dispose of end-of-life code.”