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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

IBM will disarm royalties over technologies it owns that are used in Web services standards, but only if other vendors with similar claims on technologies follow suit,

Gavin Clarke writes

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Steve Holbrook, IBM program director for emerging e-business standards, told ComputerWire that charging royalties could impede development of XML-based specifications, hindering rollout of Web services.

That would be bad news for IBM, as Holbrook believes Web services will help the company to tap new markets outside of its existing customer base, achieving "ubiquity". "We want to own the technology we own. But when it's a ubiquity play, owning that technology would defeat that ubiquity play," Holbrook said.

Licensing disputes delaying adoption of technologies? Holbrook, speaking at a Web services hosted by Santa Clara, California-based managed service provider Conxion Corp, could be right.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) believes that privacy technology Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), which it was developing as a standard in 1999, hit unnecessary delay when Intermind Corp claimed ownership of a patent it said was essential to P3P implementations. A subsequent W3C investigation found P3P technology did not infringe on a patent held by Intermind, eventually paving the way to ratification as a standard and implementation.

Web services have only served to raise the industry's anxiety level over the normally dusty subjects of patents, intellectual property and royalties. Some companies, like Santa Clara, California-based Sun Microsystems Inc, believe vendors may allow patented technologies to be used in Web services standards and subsequently charge users royalties.

Sun is suspicious of technologies licensed under Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (RAND) - a term that essentially leaves an open door for a company to charge royalties. Sun, instead, prefers royalty free licensing.

Sun's worst fears appeared to be coming true yesterday, after it emerged Fairfax, Virginia-based webMethods Inc and Epicentric Inc had notified the W3C they may have patents that cover technologies being used in Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) 1.2.

A spokesperson for San Francisco, California-based Epicentric told ComputerWire that its statement to the W3C is out-of-date being two-years old and blamed an oversight by its W3C representatives for failing to update the statement. "Epicentric is amending our statement via W3C to be royalty free," she said. WebMethods was unavailable for comment.

Sun has failed to name any vendors or identify particular technologies that cause it so much concern, but one company is clearly at the top of its worry list: Java web services rival IBM. The computing and services giant is a patents powerhouse, consecutively recording the most patents during the last eight years according to the US Patent and Trademark Office and beating the likes of NEC Corp. IBM recorded 3,311 patents in 2001 compared to NEC's measly 1,953.

Microsoft is another worry. Along with IBM, Microsoft was instrumental in developing SOAP, although it should be noted that - according to a statement made by Microsoft and lodged with the W3C - technologies granted by the Redmond, Washington-based company for use in SOAP 1.2 are given royalty free.

Any vendor who does decide to flex their licensing muscle is likely to slow down standards work. At the W3C a Patents Advisory Group would likely take over, conducting an investigation, calling for evidence and community feedback, and seek resolution.

The Web Services Interoperability (WS-I) Organization, meanwhile, is unsure how it will proceed. WS-I sits above organizations like the W3C by working with pre-defined standards. The W3C insists members report ownership of relevant intellectual property (IP).

WS-I president and chairman Tom Glover said: "We will have to begin working with them and determine how to go forward." The situation is made difficult, Glover adds, because you simply don't know what IP issues exist until you are made aware of them by a vendor or individual. Glover called this a "nebulous" environment.

Against this foggy backdrop, IBM is playing the bilateral card in a way that echoes the way some governments sought nuclear disarmament during the 1980s. IBM will disarm its own IP rights if a vendor with similar rights on their separate technology also disarms their own IP rights. "We will put a patent out free of charge, but if you have patents around specifications, we expect you to reciprocate," Holbrook said.

Question is, under what circumstances will IBM fire it royalty warhead? Holbrook didn't say. It's an attitude to disarmament that may have got us through the nuclear nightmare of the 1980s, but remains to be seen whether it serves Web services.

© ComputerWire

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