The first one's free...
January 11, 2005 8:48 AM   Subscribe

IBM to give away 500 patents. Curiouser and curiouser. Why now? And, what patents? IBM makes a great deal of money licensing their patent portfolio - is this meant to stimulate additional licensing? How does this fit in with the open source movement? In other news, IBM just received the go-ahead to sell off their PC unit to a firm that just won a rather large contract to provide PCs in China.
posted by FormlessOne (17 comments total)
IBM's patent license is the equivalent of a steel mill giving picks and shovels to volunteers who dig their coal for free.
posted by three blind mice at 9:22 AM on January 11, 2005

500 patents is about 2% of their US patent portfolio. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Give away some worthless patents (and appeal to the open source community), while making millions on licensing the others.

On preview: tbm said it well.
posted by knave at 9:25 AM on January 11, 2005

Well, at least nobody will be using the GPL license for anything covered by this giveaway. Looks like RMS really did have some foresight.
posted by shepd at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2005

Here's the list of patents (PDF): Pledged Patents
posted by smackfu at 9:49 AM on January 11, 2005

Thanks, smackfu. It might be a carrot and stick approach:
"We won't sue you if you use any of these patents, as
long as you don't sue anyone producing Open Source
software (and you know who you are)."

This is the last paragraph of the PDF whose url you posted:

In order to foster innovation and avoid the possibility that a party will take advantage of this
pledge and then assert patents or other intellectual property rights of its own against Open Source
Software, thereby limiting the freedom of IBM or any other Open Source Software developer to
create innovative software programs, or the freedom of others to distribute and use Open Source
Software, the commitment not to assert any of these 500 U.S. patents and all counterparts of
these patents issued in other countries is irrevocable except that IBM reserves the right to
terminate this patent pledge and commitment only with regard to any party who files a lawsuit
asserting patents or other intellectual property rights against Open Source Software
posted by the Real Dan at 10:50 AM on January 11, 2005

I'm a little concerned.
Can you put a multinational on suicide watch?
posted by dong_resin at 10:56 AM on January 11, 2005

I worked for IBM a few years ago for a few years. I was there when they embraced Linux. This is a logical next step.

But that won't stop reflexive corporation bashers from seeing something nefarious here. Even though there's nothing nefarious here.

Big Blue under Sam Palmisano (and before him, Gerstner) is not your father's IBM. It's still a lumbering giant, but it's a lot more dexterous than in decades past.
posted by 1016 at 11:42 AM on January 11, 2005

the Real Dan: I like the "Sword of Damocles" clause in the giveaway. It seems like a boon to open source developers - "use our stuff, we won't get upset." It's a nice scheme, but, it seems obvious why they've done this - I'll bet many of these patents have been rolled into Linux systems maintained by IBM. It's a "poison pill" against Linux lawsuits, masked as a "giveaway."

Here's a bit of hyperbolic conjecture:
- They've practically given away their desktop business. With less than 5% penetration in the market, Linux won't keep their desktop business afloat.
- They've rallied around their high-end server business, using Linux (with IBM-based drivers for their hardware and custom software for their multi-processor boxes) as one of their featured business lines. They're still competing against Microsoft, but more successfully.
- Microsoft uses their OS to drive their other lines of business. Anything that hurts their OS, hurts their entire business.

So, why not poison the desktop market? It won't hurt IBM, but will hurt Microsoft. IBM is all but telling open source developers "go write a Linux desktop - use these patents, and you'll have IBM's legal and IP support." They neatly skirt the anti-trust issues, and encourage thousands of developers to work on IBM's behalf, for free. IBM can take full advantage of the work, because it has their IP in it, and can discourage others from doing so, for the same reason.

'Course, I could be just overly paranoid.
posted by FormlessOne at 11:49 AM on January 11, 2005

1016, my observations could seem as though I were seeing something nefarious, so I add this preface...

I agree that it's a logical next step. I'm continually amazed at the number of people who don't understand that IBM is no longer the Brontosaur of the mid-90s. They're fast, (in their own way) ruthless, and fiercely agnostic about platform, os, etc. Their position is basically that they'll sell you whatever the hell you want, to close the deal. That works because of the consulting fees...

IBM of today is probably the single company that's best equipped to make money in a radically open-sourced marketplace. People have to buy hardware, and IBM can sell it to them. (Read those "selling the hardware unit" announcements more carefully, folks.) People still have to buy big software like databases and management systems, and IBM can sell those, too. People still have to integrate it all, and hey, guess what else IBM can sell them?

Here's the "nefarious" part: They do this because it makes them money, and this is a logical next step because it gets the f/oss community more and more deeply invested in doing things in ways that are better understood by IBM than by anyone else. They're the smartest deal-makers in teh business; time after time they've crushed minor future opponents by hiring them to do a job for IBM, then nickle-and-diming the contract until the smaller company is non-viable.

But there are enough people inside of the f/oss movement who understand this that I don't think IBM will ever end up "owning" open source. My sense is that they have bought in at an almost religious level to the idea that they're better equipped than anyone else to deal with change, and about that, they may well be right.

But I still don't trust them any farther than I could spit Lou Gerstner through a straw. They're in the business to make money, not do good deeds.

(... and as an aside, I think it's criminal that people have lionized Steve Jobs and that joker from GE so much when Gerstner pulled a feat that's really so much more impressive on examination...)
posted by lodurr at 11:58 AM on January 11, 2005

lodurr: "They do this because it makes them money."

Well, yes, precisely. They are, as was noted above, in businsess. Palmisano is pretty damned impressive.

Good point about Jobs. I bought my wife the 40GB iPod and a host of accessories...didn't come cheap. He's in business, too.

Gerstner was (and almost certainly still is) a crusty SOB (more feared than loved...well, not loved at all), but he is certainly in the management hall of fame. Sam is much better-liked. We'll see where history places him.

Funny you mention Welch (implicitly) former boss at IBM worked for GE for a while, too. I think he's of exactly the same opinion as you.
posted by 1016 at 12:49 PM on January 11, 2005

Never meant to dis Palmisano, 1016; I'm not that familiar with him.

My feeling about a lot of this stuff is: I can admire what they do and how they do it, but I never want to let myself forget that their interests are not my interests. I'm not saying they're opposed, directly -- but when great forces like the multinationals change their course, we can sometimes be ground beneath their wheels if we don't change course also. I think it's always a bad idea to trust any of these outfits to do more than live up to their contractual obligations (and sometimes not even that far); if you get more than that, great.
posted by lodurr at 1:31 PM on January 11, 2005

I actually sat in on a presentation by Sam Palmisano this summer as part of my internship, and a fellow intern straight up asked him what he would do prevent patents from killing open source. Sam said they were working on changing parts of IBM'S IP policy, and I'm glad its produced some results. I don't think this is a bait a switch tactic, I think this is the first step to opening up many more patents to open source. IBM is out to make money, but IBM realizes it needs open source to do this. IBM wants to set it up such that open source projects are free from patent problems, and such that non-open source projects are subject to the whims of IBM's patent attorneys. I expect IBM to follow a path of opening up more patents for open source use, and cracking down on commercial use of their patents. The fact that I dont agree with this policy is the main thing keeping me from taking a job at IBM, but this at least shows they are considering the problem.
posted by JZig at 1:54 PM on January 11, 2005

Oh, and my general opinion on IBM from my time working in it: If you're going to go with a large corporation, it might as well be the best one. IBM has a strong system of ethics that is well enforced, excellent internal job mobility, and a real interest in software quality. Of course, it is also a large, amoral corporation. For instance, IBM has long had a policy against directly building any sort of military weaponry. This doesnt stop them from providing china with Internet blocking tools, or providing the computers the military uses. There's no morality going on here, just public relations and long term business goals. The real difference at IBM is that the goal is long term. Long term goals provide an excellent environment for research, a desire not to screw over customers, and some really weird, interesting projects internally, if you can find them. Just my view, the different divisions of IBM are fairly different from each other, as well.
posted by JZig at 2:01 PM on January 11, 2005

What JZig said...I'd never worked at a corporation before, let alone a huge one...when the offer materialized, my pal said I should take it: "Hey, IBM is the IBM of corporations."

I wasn't really cut out for it. Working in a big corporation, I mean. Glad I did it, but glad I'm no longer doing it.
posted by 1016 at 2:31 PM on January 11, 2005

I think it's criminal that people have lionized Steve Jobs

Yup. Jobs:
Lied about his parentage of his daughter to her Mother's face, meanwhile named the Lisa after her.
Lied to his partner Woz, just so he could pocket some extra money.
The whole 'no bathing' thing (he is back to bathing these days)

Then you have his 'business decisions':
Telling Apple's board the Mac will sell thousands a month when the reality was under 2000 a month.
The shafting of the Apple ][ group (more than once)
The 'Steveing' of the Newton, then after axing the Newton, Apple shows up at a Education trade show in March and told people "The Newton is an important part of the Apple Product line" (HUH? A killed product is "important"?)

Jobs will soon as screw ya as look at ya, make no mistake.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:33 PM on January 11, 2005

IBM realizes it needs open source to do this.

I think it goes deeper than that. I think they believe in it. But I think that IBM management's kind of "belief" is different from, say, RSM's. They have a vision, and in that vision, IBM (the most powerful company in computing) is better positioned to capitalize an open marketplace than anyone else. So it's in their interest (in their view) for the market to open.

Again, I think this is a different vision from that of people who work in f/oss. I don't think it's necessarily incompatible. Tehy're mutually reinforcing systems, at least at the moment. The f/oss folks just need to keep their eyes open, because that can stop being true at any time.
posted by lodurr at 3:50 PM on January 11, 2005

lodurr, they definitely believe in it, but I think their realization that they need open source is, well, the source of their belief.

It is definitely not incompatible. It's damned near organic.

Anybody ever read Peter Huber's "Orwell's Revenge"? That'd be an interesting thread...
posted by 1016 at 5:11 PM on January 11, 2005

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