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Register: IBM risks Linux strategy with W3C RAND demands

By kmself in Op-Ed
Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 11:20:14 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Andrew Orlowski at The Register reports IBM risks billion dollar GNU/Linux strategy with W3C RAND demands. That's right. Apparently IBM is among the drivers for the policy change at W3C to support "reasonable and non-discriminatory" (RAND) patent licensing in W3C standards. As many people have pointed out, this would be a tremendous blow to free software. While fingers had been pointed at various members of W3C whose openness to free software has been questioned -- Adobe Systems, Apple, Microsoft, Phillips, Sony Corp, SIIA -- the culprit appears to be our good friend IBM.

IBM has been a tremendous supporter of GNU/Linux, Apache, and other free software products. For those of us who use free software daily, the merits are known. But the for unwashed masses, IBM's support, and recent advertising campaign, disproportionately visible in a vastly shrunk market, has given GNU/Linux visibility, credibility, and a place in the corporate IT agenda.

However, IBM has been straddling the bar with regards to intellectual property and copy prevention mechanisms. It has to decide which side it wants to be on before that bar comes up. Hard.

RAND policies are neither: they are not reasonable for free software, they are not non-discriminatory. The language is misleading and should be changed, the proposal of "UFO", uniform fee only, by Richard M. Stallman, should replace it. IBM must straighten out its internal conflicts over licensing and free software support. It must do so quickly.

The current situation is sufficiently serious that the free software community might be advised to look hard at finding another corporate institution to balance the Incredibly Big Monopole that's established itself as the institutional corporate presence in free software. Replacing IBM isn't the goal, merely finding a tempering force. What's needed is a firm that combines hardware, software, and services sectors, comparable to IBM. I don't see a single player in the space that meets the bill, but an alliance, or merger, of Sun and Oracle might fit the bill.

In IBM's response to the W3C Patent Policy comments, Gerald Lane writes:

Historically, companies in the IT Industry have agreed to licensed patents under Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (RAND) terms when participating in formal standards setting activities. 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. This approach encourages participants to contribute more of their patented technology resulting in the adoption of the best technical solutions.


The W3C Patent Policy Framework Proposal will never provide complete certainty for specification developers and product implementers.

Unfortunately, RAND, or the preferred term, UFO, does provide complete certainty in one regard: free software can't play.

Under US patent law, anyone who "makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention", imports, "actively induces infringement", "offers to sell or sells, or imports...a component of a patented machine", violates patent. This directly affects free software developers, distributors, users, and importers. There is little clear ground for refuge or safety. And given the nature of software, and the number of software-related patents existing, it's a virtual certainty that any given program violates some patent.

It's been said that IBM's licensing department is a world unto itself. Negotiations with a particular division can go swimmingly until the agreement is run past the legal and licensing divisions, at which point, decisions are made which seem entirely independent of other business interests. IBM generates significant revenue from licensing patents [1, 2]. The company set a goal of US$1 billion annually in 1997, and has exceeded this for the past several years, netting a reported $1.7 billion in royalties for 2000.

What's less often stated is that this licensing doesn't include software patents. IBM has avoided recouping revenues through software patent licensing, according to an industry source, in part because they don't want to set precedent and annoy the industry. The same reserve clearly isn't holding sway in the standards space.

In a March, 1999 internal IBM "earthquake document" viewed by me, the company's strategy for embarking on a free software course of action is laid out. IBM clearly delineated the advantages of free software for the company. Particularly emphasized was the fact that, not being owned by any one party, free software is an avenue to avoid the proprietization of other IT markets that have plagued IBM. Once the king of the hill with its mainframe monopoly, the company was first forced to share that space with other companies, and later became at best a bit player in the open systems (Unix) and PC desktop space. The company still smarts from its betrayal by Microsoft in the OS/2 / NT wars, and skirmishes with Sun on Java.

Why then push for patenting Internet protocols? This is a direct extension of Microsoft strategies as expressed in the 1998 "Halloween Document" reports received by Eric S. Raymond. In Halloween Document 1, written by Vinod Valloppillil of Microsoft, the practice of "de-commoditizing" core protocols is strongly endorsed:

Fold extended functionality into commodity protocols / services and create new protocols

Linux's homebase is currently commodity network and server infrastructure. By folding extended functionality (e.g. Storage+ in file systems, DAV/POD for networking) into today's commodity services, we raise the bar & change the rules of the game.

And more generally:

Blunting OSS attacks

Generally, Microsoft wins by attacking the core weaknesses of OSS projects.

De-commoditize protocols & applications

OSS projects have been able to gain a foothold in many server applications because of the wide utility of highly commoditized, simple protocols. By extending these protocols and developing new protocols, we can deny OSS projects entry into the market.

David Stutz makes a very good point: in competing with Microsoft's level of desktop integration, "commodity protocols actually become the means of integration" for OSS projects. There is a large amount of IQ being expended in various IETF working groups which are quickly creating the architectural model for integration for these OSS projects.

As Eric Raymond points out in his commentary:

What the author is driving at is nothing less than trying to subvert the entire "commodity network and server" infrastructure (featuring TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, POP3, IMAP, NFS, and other open standards) into using protocols which, though they might have the same names, have actually been subverted into customer- and market-control devices for Microsoft (this is what the author really means when he exhorts Microserfs to ``raise the bar & change the rules of the game'').

The `folding extended functionality' here is a euphemism for introducing nonstandard extensions (or entire alternative protocols) which are then saturation-marketed as standards, even though they're closed, undocumented or just specified enough to create an illusion of openness. The objective is to make the new protocols a checklist item for gullible corporate buyers, while simultaneously making the writing of third-party symbiotes for Microsoft programs next to impossible. (And anyone who succeeds gets bought out.)

This game is called ``embrace and extend''. We've seen Microsoft play this game before, and they're very good at it. When it works, Microsoft wins a monopoly lock. Customers lose.

Hewlett-Packard has strongly endorsed RF policies. Even Gartner has strongly questioned RAND:

It is a mistake to allow the use of patented technology in standards. The point of a standards body should be to share works and come to a consensus for the betterment of the industry.

There is the question of whether or not a compromise policy could be adopted -- say, RF for FS, royalty-free for free software. The problem is that the domain space of software copyright, and patent, are disjoint. Of the various formulations of such a policy, the alternatives either allow for use of patents in proprietary software, as the various proprietary bundling exceptions of common free software licenses such as BSD, MIT, Apache, and Mozilla are utilized, or only a very restrictive RF zone of use is defined in the specific case of the GNU GPL or similar copyleft licenses. Only a strong Copyleft assures that all derivative and combined works are also free software. Even in the case of the Linux kernel, the module exemption might provide a proprietary-use "out".

IBM should stop pissing on its own feet, it's embarrasing to watch friends do that.

What do we want? RF only standards!

When do we want them? Now!


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What is an acceptable standards patent policy?
o RAND 5%
o RF 55%
o RF for FS 10%
o Standards? Who needs standards? 7%
o Inoshiro 21%

Votes: 38
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o The Register
o IBM risks billion dollar GNU/Linux strategy with W3C RAND demands
o W3C
o support "reasonable and non-discriminatory" (RAND) patent licensing
o IBM's response to the W3C Patent Policy comments
o US patent law
o IBM generates significant revenue from licensing patents
o 1
o 2
o Halloween Document
o Halloween Document 1
o Hewlett-Pa ckard has strongly endorsed RF policies
o Gartner has strongly questioned RAND
o Copyleft
o Also by kmself

Display: Sort:
Register: IBM risks Linux strategy with W3C RAND demands | 23 comments (10 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
IBM is not your friend (4.42 / 7) (#6)
by Eloquence on Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 09:14:13 PM EST

it's embarrasing to watch friends do that.

Repeat after me: Corporations are amoral. While some people at IBM certainly like Linux and enjoy working on open-source software, the only reason IBM now "embraces" Linux is that doing so, they hope, will increase their profitability. By the same logic, insurance companies are lobbying constantly for more safety everywhere -- yet, the same companies also do everything to invade your privacy, as they need extremely detailed profiles for their risk analysis. IBM was not always the "good guy", as many of you will remember, and they aren't now.

IBM does not "care" about the open-source community any more or less than Microsoft outside of its business strategy. What does that mean? It means that you shouldn't expect IBM to act always, or at all, to the benefit of Linux. Here's a few things they may try to do:

  • Gain significant foothold in the distribution market and use the "bundling" concept in the same fashion as Microsoft does.
  • Sabotage Linux development -- I'm sure you can imagine many ways to do that. Perhaps IBM and Microsoft are secret allies -- in this case, OS/2's failure would appear in a different light.
  • Create a monopoly on Linux consulting / system building etc.
  • "Pollute" Linux with closed-source software and proprietary standards.
Now, nothing of this needs to happen -- but since we don't know what IBM's internal strategy is, we can't say. The only thing we can be absolutely sure about: They do not pump a billion into Linux out of benevolence. That's why we need to be wary of their actions and be ready to fight against them should that become necessary. IBM+Linux is an alliance, not a friendship.
Copyright law is bad: infoAnarchy Pleasure is good: Origins of Violence
spread the word!
Dipole possibility (3.50 / 4) (#9)
by rusty on Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 09:54:26 PM EST

Ok, so they're still roughly Halley's comet to IBM's Jupiter, but HP might be one to watch in balancing the behemoth's might in the Linux world. With the likely acquisition of Compaq, HP grows just a wee bit larger, and with Bruce Perens still lurking on board in some still-nebulous capacity, they have the Free Software net cred, should they ever choose to excercise it.

Hey, what does Bruce do over there anyway?

Not the real rusty

HP/Q and industry reorg (4.83 / 6) (#11)
by kmself on Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 10:12:33 PM EST

I see HP/Q (a merged Hewlett-Packard and Compaq) seriously marginalized, particularly in light of an IBM, Sun/Oracle, and Microsoft landscape. But there's a way out.

Both IBM and Sun/Oracle would present companies with strong hardware, services, and business systems components. HP/Q lacks the business systems (RDBMS) component. They'd need to pick that up somewhere.

There are a few proprietary shells lying around -- Sybase, a few others. But most of these companies are already weak thirds to Oracle and DB2, and there's another option. Postgres is approaching the quality of a competitive commercial full-featured enterprise database. Propping this up as a low-end entry point against DB2 and Oracle (with a Red Hat partnership) could help cut into IBM and Sun/Oracle's licensing revenues, while providing a professional services stream for HP. For high-end operations, HPUX still does Oracle or DB2 fine, so the logical thought is to provide a migration path for those customers who want to avail of it.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is left in the cold as the lone non-Linux business systems vendor. Something like DEC in the old VAX days. Granted, Sun's not going to give up Solaris without a fight, but they already have Linux running on Sparc, and will eventually concede the low end. Dell would have to check which way the wind was blowing.

Add to this the fact that all three of IBM, Sun/O, and HP/Q have substantial desktop presence, and GNU/Linux affinity, it could write the beginning of the end of the Windows desktop era.

I can dream, can't I?

Karsten M. Self
SCO -- backgrounder on Caldera/SCO vs IBM
Support the EFF!!
There is no K5 cabal.
[ Parent ]

Neat World Domination scheme (4.60 / 5) (#12)
by rusty on Thu Oct 04, 2001 at 10:34:23 PM EST

But I'd add two more components into that. Sybase is a good enterprise DB that's basically hanging on by a thread, having been out-marketed by Oracle. So HP/Q could buy Sybase and open-source it, buy MySQL (and leave it open sourced), and roll up an "enterprise supported" version of Postgres, and basically cover all three layers of database services, probably for cheap. Entry, Midrange, and Bigass all from one vendor. It'd be nice if they made it easier to migrate from one to another as needed, too.

Now, maintaining three database codebases might be a large monkey wrench in this idea, but hey, we were dreaming, right?

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

MySQL (none / 0) (#23)
by pointwood on Sun Oct 07, 2001 at 11:49:48 AM EST

How would they be able to buy MySQL? They could buy MySQL AB (mysql.com), but I don't think they want to be bought.

AFAIK, MySQL is GPL licensed so they would have no choice but to leave it open sourced.

Am I missing something?

Pointwood - Folding for the Cause!

[ Parent ]
About IBM (4.85 / 7) (#17)
by Simon Kinahan on Fri Oct 05, 2001 at 06:25:31 AM EST

The thing about IBM is, its a very large company. More like a collection of small groups, each with their own motivations, vaguely allied to one another. There have been times when divisions of IBM have competed more with one another than with anyone else. While some bits of IBM are big fans of open source software, other bits are probably more scared of it than anything else (the people who write operating systems, for instance), while other bits are indifferent or ignorant. At a guess, IBM's people who talk to the W3C probably fall into the latter category.

To give you an idea: I once worked on a piece of software that was used by a division of IBM as an adjunct to one of their products. Being in IBM, they used RS/6000 workstations to run it, while we developed on Suns (it was pretty portable). They kept reporting mysterious crashes. We tracked the problem down to some software we were using, and contacted the vendor. They tracked the problem down to a hardware fault in some RS/6000s. They contacted the RS/6000 people in IBM. Now, being a rare hardware fault, the problem was hard to diagnose. Noone but the first group in IBM could reproduce it, but the two IBM groups would not talk to one another, so we had to debug the problem through three steps of communication.


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
Just to clarify.. (4.66 / 3) (#18)
by mindstrm on Fri Oct 05, 2001 at 04:24:47 PM EST

The current suggestions to the w3c policies are not that 'we should allow RAND patents'... that is nothing new..

The proposd changes are that, now, companies have to DISCLOSE if they have such patents in the recommendations they are making when working on w3 standards.

The idea is to avoid submarine patents.. this is not a discussion about whether to allow patented things, where before we didnt..

Did you read the draft? (4.66 / 3) (#20)
by IriseLenoir on Sat Oct 06, 2001 at 01:31:52 AM EST

Because if you read the Patent Policy Framework, you will realize this is not the case.

From the policy: "Disclosure obligations shall not obligate a Member to conduct a search of its patent portfolio. No extraordinary effort is required for patent disclosure requests" ... "Recipients of such material are expected to respond, if at all, based on their actual, personal knowledge of their organizations patent holdings and applications." ... "unless such disclosure would breach non-disclosure obligations." (emphasis added)

The developers that work on the standards often do not know about patents their company hold and are not even required to respond. This will not prevent "submarine patents". And the so called "Disclosure Obligations" is only one point out of seven (counting only normative sections.)

While it is true that there hasn't been an explicit policy that requires RF only Recommendations, royalties have never been imposed for W3C Recommendations. It was assumed (wrongly it seems) by most that this would continue to be the case.

This is a very important issue and turning point for the WWW. I really don't understand why people on Kuro5hin don't seem to care. The only medium were anyone can distribute content without many resources is at high risk of becoming closed to the poor, users of Free Software, countries under U.S. embargo, et cetera. Or at the very least of seeing another browser standard war and all the developer hell, incompatibilities and user frustration that comes with it. To think that this was almost over.
"liberty is the mother of order, not its daughter" - Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
[ Parent ]

Bevare of the SVG standard! (5.00 / 2) (#21)
by pointwood on Sat Oct 06, 2001 at 07:39:26 AM EST

It includes no less than 4 RAND licenses!

It's "impressive" that they have quietly made SVG1.0 an official recommendation/standard BEFORE they have finalized their patent policy!

SVG 1.0 was supposed to be the open and future standard instead of flash.

Right know I would not dare to use SVG - who knows what the 4 companies in the future will do (remember gif images?). These companies has the right to demand royalties sometime in the future - nowhere does it say what kind of royalties! That is up to the companies to decide - when and how.

Basically I would use flash instead of SVG as long as these RAND licenses exist, simply because I then know that I will not at a later date be forced to pay an unknown amount of money in royalties.

Pointwood - Folding for the Cause!

By the same token, standards should not be GPL'd (4.66 / 3) (#22)
by Pinball Wizard on Sat Oct 06, 2001 at 03:20:33 PM EST

I'm not sure what the author was trying to point out when he wrote "a strong Copyleft assures that all derivative and combined works are also free software."

GPL'd standards would be a mistake in much the same way that RAND is a mistake. You would be forced to pay a "royalty" by using GPL'd code linked or embedded in your project.

Standards should be such that anyone can use them without any restriction whatsoever.

Register: IBM risks Linux strategy with W3C RAND demands | 23 comments (10 topical, 13 editorial, 0 hidden)
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