IBM Takes Patents To Open-Source Community

In a telling shift in how it manages its vast stable of intellectual property, IBM today announced plans to make 500 patented technologies available for free to the open-source community. The move, seemingly unprecedented by a commercial IT company the size of Big Blue, drips with recognition that the industry is experiencing a fundamental change in how software is developed, and that the open-source model is a big part of that.

Also today, IBM grabbed top honors for most U.S. patents earned annually for the 12th consecutive year, according to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office. The company received more than 3,000 U.S. patents in 2004, more than 1,300 more than any other corporation.

The decision to share the technology behind those patents with the open-source community reflects IBM's belief that the Internet has spawned a model of software development that is more collaborative across disparate entities and relies heavily on shared knowledge, according to Adam Jollans, a Linux technologist and strategist at IBM.

"This is a realization that the model of innovation is changing, that it's both collaborative and commercial," Jollans says. "Both will continue to exist. But the collaborative model is good for the market and good for our customers and partners. Consider Linux. How do we encourage that?"

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Indeed, IBM has been a leading proponent of Linux, though admittedly this is not altruistic: A significant reason for its Linux support is to sell IBM servers that run on the increasingly popular open-source operating system. Yet, the company has also donated code and other applications, such as the Eclipse development environment and the Cloudscape database, to open-source projects like Apache.

With this announcement, IBM holds onto its patents (protecting its own IP), but will provide the innovations they represent as fodder for any individual, community or company that is developing or using software that meets the Open Source Initiative's definition of open source. These patents cover a range of technology inventions from dynamic linking of operating systems to image processing to storage-related functionality.

Use of the patented technology will be governed by something IBM is calling the Patent Commons, where open-source developers can access those components they need. Jollans says one of IBM's objectives with this move is to spawn other IT vendors to do likewise and make patented technologies available to open source. One obvious candidate would be Sun Microsystems, which to date has been highly resistant to calls to donate Java to open source.

IBM will not charge royalties for these 500 patents, a significant change from patent policies' past.