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1/13/2005
12:30 PM
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Big Blue's Big Deal

When a company faces opposition that could cost it billions of dollars, one solution is to spend whatever it takes and do whatever is necessary to grind its adversaries into dust. The other solution is to use charm and subtle persuasion to turn enemies into friends. This week, I see about 500 reasons why IBM is purusing the latter approach to protect its interests in the European Union.

When a company faces opposition that could cost it billions of dollars, one solution is to spend whatever it takes and do whatever is necessary to grind its adversaries into dust. The other solution is to use charm and subtle persuasion to turn enemies into friends. This week, I see about 500 reasons why IBM is purusing the latter approach to protect its interests in the European Union.

The EU is now debating a topic that will have profound effects both at home and abroad: whether to legalize the use of software patents. In recent years, software companies have filed tens of thousands of these patents in Europe, in spite of the fact that they may be illegal and impossible to enforce.

As I've mentioned before, pending EU legislation would legalize software patents once and for all. Given the chance, companies will rush to file thousands of new software patents and to enforce existing ones aggressively. Not surprisingly, mega-corporations such as IBM and Microsoft already hold a huge number of European software patents, and they're drooling at the prospect of a future European IP land-grabs.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the corporate trough: European legislators, open-source developers, small-business owners, and even ordinary citizens are organizing to kill the patent measure. Some opposition leaders have already discussed the impact an IBM "patent tax" would have on European technology firms, especially open-source software companies; others are asking why Europe should tailor its intellectual property laws to suit wannabe monopolists like Microsoft.

This week, however, IBM added an interesting twist to the story. The company says it will provide free and open access to 500 key open-source software patents; the deal applies to any company, person or organization using open-source software.

There's more than one facet to this story. IBM has cultivated a broad, far-reaching, and sincere partnership with the Linux and open-source communities in recent years. In fact, now that Big Blue has dumped its money-pit PC manufacturing operation, the company is likely to stake its very future on the success of Linux in the enterprise. IBM's patent announcement could be the first step in bringing Linux and open-source software under its patent umbrella, forcing Microsoft--or anyone else--rethink possible lawsuits against OSS organizations or Linux vendors.

Yet IBM has also benefited immensely from U.S. patent law, probably to the tune of many billions of dollars. The company would dearly like to see Europe grant it a similar license to print money. This is why IBM's efforts to re-start the stalled EU patent legislation have been curiously tepid so far.

Could IBM's gift to the open-source community represent the opening salvo of a European charm offensive intended to make software patents look like a Linux developer's best friends? We'll soon find out, but I'm betting that's the case. And while I wish IBM a long and prosperous relationship with all things open-source, I also think it will be a fine day when Europe turns its back on the evil that is software patent protection.

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