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Big Blue Discovers New Way To Leverage Patents

What do you call a company that spends vast sums on R&D to obtain new patents; then suddenly makes 500 of its patented inventions available to everyone else, including its competitors ... for free? Do you call it misguided? Altruistic? Insane? Stupid?

No, you call it IBM.

Big companies can leverage their patent portfolios to negotiate necessary cross-licenses. However, small- and medium-sized software businesses usually don't own enough patents to press for similar deals. They must either pay hard-earned cash for patent licenses, spend time and money trying to design around patents, or simply give up on innovating in patent-infested areas.

Because of this, many smaller tech companies look askance on software patents. It also is the reason many companies in Europe have actively opposed a proposal to legalize software patents in the European Union. Open source advocates also have joined the chorus against the proposed EU software patents, claiming that such patents would hinder innovation and thus harm society.

"Slowly and quietly people will change their business models to adopt open source," Rivette says. "Open source is creeping into so many things. How can you avoid putting open source into your business model?"

Rivette sees only one thing that can stop the eventual success of open-source software: companies that make their living not by selling products, but enforcing their software patents against others. These companies may have key patents essential to open-source software, and no financial incentive to make their patents available to the open-source community.


Steven Seidenberg

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