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IBM is to allow free use of 500 of its patents to open source developers, individuals and groups. The decision has been welcomed by most, but has attracted harsh criticism from some quarters.

John Kelly, IBM senior vice president for technology and intellectual property, said this is the first of several such steps, and sets the tone for how the company will manage its intellectual property. IBM says these patents will form the basis of an industry-wide "patent commons", to spur future innovation.

"We have put a stake in the ground with this," a spokesman told The Register. "And we are hoping other companies rally round and make it a trend."

Larry Lessig, Stanford Law school professor and founder of the Creative Commons, hailed the announcement. Quoted by the The New York Times, he said: "This is exciting. It is IBM making good on its commitment to encourage a different kind of software development and recognizing the burden that patents can impose."

But Florian Mueller, director of the NoSoftwarePatents campaign group, slammed IBM's move as a "diversionary tactic". He added: "Let's put this into perspective: We're talking about roughly one per cent of IBM's worldwide patent portfolio. They file that number of patents in about a month's time."

Indeed, IBM does file a lot of patents. It says in the same press notice that it has topped the list of US patentees for the twelfth year running.

Mueller argues that IBM's announcement, and its earlier pledge not to pursue patents against the Linux kernel, puts it at odds with its activity in Europe. In the EU, he says, IBM is one of the strongest supporters of the proposed directive on computer implemented inventions, a very controversial piece of legislation.

IBM's spokesman told The Register that the company expected this response. He said that IBM doesn't see itself as being on either side of the debate. "IBM sees the need for balance between open and proprietary approaches. No one is saying IBM is going to stop filing patents, but we have re-evaluated our IP policy to find ways to both increase the quality of patents in the market, and to open up our portfolio to other organisations."

He added that while the 500 patents might not be a huge proportion of IBM's portfolio, it represents "more patents than many individual software companies hold, and a significant number of man-hours". ®

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