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IBM risks billion dollar Linux strategy with W3C RAND demands

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Exclusive Sources familiar with the W3C's patent policy have confirmed that demands for the standards body to adopt RAND licensing were initiated by IBM.

Last week IBM officially stated that it preferred working with RAND licenses, which permit a patent-holder to collect a royalty, rather than on the traditional royalty-free basis, which has been credited with the widespread adoption of web standards:-

"The policy of licensing patents under RAND terms and conditions has allowed our best technical individuals to work together without becoming burdened by patent issues," Gerald Lane, IBM's Program Director of Corporate Standards Practices, wrote in a posting to the W3C's Patent Policy Mailing list.

But sources close to the W3C point the finger at Armonk, saying that the demands for the changes originated with Big Blue. Asked for confirmation, Danny Weitzner, chair of the W3C's Patent Policy declined to name names.

IBM's Lane states the view is that patent discussion should be taken out of the standards setting process:-

"The W3C Patent Policy Framework Proposal will never provide complete certainty for specification developers and product implementers. We should allow the technical experts to work unencumbered by complicated rules and leave the patent issues for discussion outside of the standards organizations," writes Lane.

Which is an astonishingly naïve suggestion to us. As Linux kernel hacker Daniel Philips pointed out, GPL projects can't link to patented encumbered software at all, and few if any developers working under other software libre licenses will be prepared to embark on work in the knowledge they'll be nuked by a patent at some undetermined point in the future. Which would at best mean they'd be wasting their time, and at worst, would impose unexpected legal and financial obligations.

HP makes hay

Hewlett Packard has been the first major industry vendor to publicly state its position, with its W3C rep Jim Bell declaring that web standards should continue to be royalty-free.

Senior IBM server executives were horrified to learn yesterday that W3C standards may not in the future be royalty-free. Internet standards and Linux have helped IBM widen its appeal in recent years, and the company has pledged $1 billion on developing and marketing Linux. But its continued investment depends on good will from the Linux developer community, and that may well be imperilled by its preference of RAND to royalty-free for the most fundamental WWW standards.

IBM holds over 34,000 patents and gains over $1 billion in royalties annually from its patent portfolio.

"IBM's a great supporter of Linux if it can avoid pissing on its feet," license watcher Karsten Self told us. "IBM is straddling the line on intellectual property and content control measures, and while it has it has been a great supporter of the Linux community, it needs to decide which side of the bar it needs to stand on, before that bar comes up hard."

Having contacted Mr Lane's office, we've been promised a comment from a member of IBM's W3C working group shortly, but no one was available at publication time.®

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