IBM exec: US could learn from EU, China patent policy

IBM strategist Irving Wladawsky-Berger has called for changes to US patent policy, which he deemed "lousy."

The U.S. should look to regions like China and the E.U. for ways to improve intellectual property (IP) policy, or it runs the risk of driving business out of the country, an IBM executive said Wednesday during a keynote address at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco.

Describing the U.S. patent policy as "lousy," IBM Vice President of Technology and Strategy Irving Wladawsky-Berger said that the U.S. Patent Office has been simply too lax in granting patents. "Any idiot can get a patent for something that should never be granted a patent," he said.

Citing the E.U. and China as two regions where patents are given more scrutiny than the U.S., Wladawsky-Berger said, "Maybe the U.S. has a thing or two to learn from how those governments are treating IP to enable innovation."

Frivolous patent lawsuits could ultimately prove to be such an impediment to business that they could drive companies out of the U.S., Wladawsky-Berger said in an interview after his keynote.

He stopped short of calling for a complete overhaul of the U.S. patent and copyright systems. "We just need to improve the patent law to make it more strict," Wladawsky-Berger said.

IBM is itself one of the largest patent holders in the U.S. In fact, it has been the largest recipient of U.S. patents for the past 12 years, according to a report published by IFI Claims Patent Services, based in Wilmington, Delaware. Big Blue was awarded 3,277 patents in 2004, according to the research.

The company has a history of using its vast patent portfolio to defend itself in litigation. In the last few years it has included patent claims in countersuits against The SCO Group and Compuware.

But recently IBM has loosened its grip on its patent portfolio. In January the company made 500 of its software patents available to open-source developers. This give-away covered areas such as technology to help microprocessors access memory and handwriting recognition.

The changes at IBM reflect a new, less-proprietary approach to working with open-source communities -- something that is now becoming standard in the high technology business, Wladawsky-Berger said in his keynote.

Open source is "changing the culture of every single business, or at least every business that wants to make sure they are still a business 10 years from now," he said. "If you really want to tap in to the communities out there, you need to balance your proprietary approach to IP... with a much more collaborative approach."

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