Patent Commons

Patent examiner The United States granted the first patent to Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford, Vermont in 1790. Mr. Hopkin’s idea had to do with making potash which in turn was used in making glass and in various industrial processes.Two other major patents granted the same year were related to making candles and milling flour. On January 11, 2005 the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced that for the twelfth consecutive year, IBM received more patents — 3,248 — than any other private sector organization in America. No company, other than IBM, has yet been granted 2,000 patents in any year while IBM has exceeded 3,000 four years in a row. Potentially more significant than the 3,248 new patents is the fact that on the same day as the USPTO announcement, IBM gave away 500 patents. Not literally. The company pledged to offer open access to key innovations covered by 500 of it’s U.S. software patents. There is one catch.
The pledge is applicable only to individuals, communities, or companies working on or using software that meets the Open Source Initiative (OSI) definition of "open source" software. Some people think open source means "free". Not so. There are specific criteria that OSI defines but from a layman perspective it means that the instructions in the software that tell computers what to do are made explicit — put into the public view so that everyone can see exactly how the software works. There are many advantages to this. For example, if a company finds a bug in Linux, they can fix it and contribute their fix to all the other users of Linux. This is unlike Windows, where if you discover a bug you have to wait for Microsoft to fix it. Their priority in fixing a bug may not be the same as yours. With open source software you can set your own priorities and you are not dependent on one company. The patents that IBM is making available are not something that an individual will likely use but indirectly all of us may be beneficiaries. This is because the OSI approved projects include Apache (used by most Web servers) and OpenOffice (used by me and by millions instead of MS Office). Software such as this may be enhanced using some of the innovations in the 500 patents from IBM. The company has also made it clear that there will be more IBM patents to become available.
The patent pledge is a major shift in the way IBM manages and its intellectual property portfolio. Surely they will continue to invent things in IBM Research laboratories but in addition they are launching an initiative called "collaborative innovation". The idea is to form an industry-wide "patent commons" in which patents are used to spread new ideas more rapidly to both developers and users. Some of the most significant technological advances are based on open standards (in the public eye like open source software) and shared knowledge and experience. Probably the best example of this I can think of is the Internet. IBM’s new move may lead to important breakthroughs as IBM challenges other companies to follow suit in deploying their intellectual property portfolios for more than just legal or financial self-interest.