IBM, Patents, and Open Source Software
There is something wonderful about watching IBM execute. Terrifying perhaps if you're the competition, but wonderful nonetheless. Last week they announced several initiatives around the U.S. patent system and open source software. Bob Sutor covers the three initiatives in his blog entry.
The Open Patent Review initiative sounds brilliant. Let the public participate in patent review. By registering an interest in particular domains (presumably via RSS feeds), people that have experience in an area can contribute and keep track of what's happening that might impact them. It wouldn't take much imagination to see reputation systems wrapped around this such that different "community examiners" begin to stand out based on the ratings of their peers and the usefulness of their contributions. (Likewise cranks can be weeded out.) Beth Novak is running a series of workshops on the initiative. You can find out more information at her website: http://dotank.nyls.edu/communitypatent.
Then there's the Open Source as Prior Art initiative. This work is being done in conjunction with the Open Source Development Lab, Novell, Red Hat, Eclipse, and SourceForge.net. Obviously this has a bit of a Linux-centric view of the world, but by adding SourceForge they can test the environment well beyond the Linux world and it presumably wouldn't be too difficult for the Apache Software Foundation, or the Gnome Foundation to get involved. Hopefully Google gets involved before Yahoo or Microsoft wake up and smell the coffee here. You can find more information at this website: http://developer.osdl.org/dev/priorart/information.html.
The Patent Quality Index sounds intriguing. I'm a little more skeptical here perhaps, but look forward to seeing where it goes.
While the initiatives are each interesting in their own right, it is the business execution on IBM's side that remains brilliant. It is how IBM is attacking the problems of a congested system, when they clearly continue to patent intellectual assets to manage vendor-to-vendor competitive situations. Consider:
- HP, Sun, Oracle and Microsoft don't appear to have been invited to the table. This means they aren't paying attention. HP is a primary patent filing company like IBM on the hardware side. (Hmmm -- so is Intel on chip technology.) And then of course one might imagine Oracle and Microsoft care just a little about software patents. Any move any of them make now (i.) looks like playing catch-up, (ii.) has to co-ordinate with the existing first public moves of IBM else they look divisive in the teeth of IBM's community and academically focused initiatives, (iii.) is already less influential.
- Last Spring (2005), Microsoft and Oracle announced their desire to see patent reform in the U.S. except they're trying to do it via the U.S. Congress, in the teeth of a system designed to protect the bigger interests of industries like the pharmaceutical industry. Here, instead, IBM is avoiding the entire expensive (lobbying), time-consuming, messy legislative route and plugging straight into the USPTO to help improve the tools they can use and dealing (potentially) directly with the human bandwidth and expertise problem the USPTO has regardless of what legislative changes may be enacted at some future time.
I once heard a story (probably apocryphal) of how IBM convinced the USPTO to consider the IBM Systems Journal to be one of the sources of prior art that was searched. This is breathtaking in its brilliance. They could mainline directly into USPTO: And it's genuinely helpful. The question becomes: What would they want to publish or patent in the teeth of their competitors this issue?
While apocryphal, it's believable because there is a maturity to the intellectual asset strategy in it that goes well beyond more-patents-faster, and speaks to the same level of brilliance of their new initiatives. This will be a fascinating set of initiatives to watch.