The Null Device
The Patent Commons
IBM have turned over 500 software patents to the open-source community
. IBM will continue to hold the patents, though have pledged not to assert them against software distributed under an OSI-approved open-source licence. (It's legally binding, too, so there's no possibility of a change of guard at IBM reneging on it.) They have, however, reserved the right to assert them against anyone suing open-source projects for patent infringement; i.e., those who don't get with the programme may find themselves out on a limb.
"The 500 patents include U.S. Patent number 5,185,861, registered in 1993, which covers technology that helps microprocessors use their memory caches efficiently; and U.S. patent number 5,617,568, registered in 1997, for allowing non-Windows based systems to act as file servers for Windows-based clients, according to IBM Asia Pacific spokeswoman June Namioka. Other examples include patents related to handwriting recognition, she said."
"There's little argument that over the past dozen years, the world has come to view things differently: free software is one aspect of this; globalization of trade is another; both have been profoundly influenced by access to the Internet and the Web, and the easy access to information they provide. Knowledge is, indeed, power. As the models change, people who are stuck in the older mode, like Gates . . . look increasingly like Pope Urban VIII and rms looks more like Galileo: despite 'common knowledge' the world was moving. IBM's freeing-up of patents is another step toward proliferating knowledge."
Which is a good start; perhaps a neo-Galambosian world where all concepts are privatised and monetised isn't inevitable after all. Mind you, we're not out of the woods yet. The existence of software patents (in the US and Australia, at least; the EU has so far managed to escape this fate) still creates a minefield which threatens to take down anyone without an extensive patent portfolio of their own, cross-licensing agreements and a hefty legal department, and threatens to establish an oligopoly on software development and invention. Though, hopefully, the establishment of a "patent commons" of valuable patents, free to use for open-source projects but defensively assertable against those threatening such development, may act as a deterrent.
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