IBM claim to ebXML patent sparks furor

A patent claim by IBM Corp. covering a submission it made to the electronic-business XML standards body created a furor last week over the notion of open standards and the ability of vendors to curb their proprietary tendencies.

Last month, IBM notified the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) that it holds a patent for the trading partner agreement portion of the ebXML e-commerce trading specifications.

Bob Sutor, director of e-business standards strategy at IBM, was chairman of the Billerica, Mass.-based OASIS board when IBM submitted the Trading Partner Agreement Markup Language to be part of what OASIS has called "an open XML-based infrastructure that will enable business information to be exchanged consistently on a global basis."

Although IBM said it wouldn't charge for use of the technology, many viewed its claim to the patent as a complete sellout of that open-standards promise.

"You don't assume that after you've created a significant body of work together that someone's going to stand up and say, 'Remember that part we submitted to the group? Well, we have a patent on it, and now you may be subject to licensing and royalty fees,'" said Mike Kistner, CIO at Best Western International Inc. in Phoenix. Kistner is also president of the Open Travel Alliance in Alexandria, Va., which plans to standardize on the ebXML specifications.

Contribution Concerns

"Hopefully, we can continue using what we thought was an open standard," Kistner added. He said he's "very concerned" about IBM's patent stance and intimated that it could affect the travel alliance's plans to use the standard if the matter isn't resolved.

Ralph Berwanger, ambassador for standards at e-commerce network provider bTrade Inc. in Irving, Texas, has been involved in ebXML development since its inception. Berwanger said all participants were told explicitly that submissions should be made without encumbrance.

"We demanded that contributions would be just that -- contributions," he said.

An IBM spokeswoman last week said the company has decided to offer TPAML "at zero cost" to OASIS licensees. She declined to explain IBM's rationale for placing a claim on the patents.

However, in an April 17 posting on www.ebxml.org, Martin Sachs, an IBM executive who headed the ebXML trading partners project team, wrote, "The disclosure [about IBM's patent claim] was to be made to ebXML in mid-2000 in conjunction with the start-up of the [trading partner] team, but someone dropped the ball."

While that appears to quell immediate royalty payment concerns, Jamie Clark, chairman of the Chicago-based American Bar Association's Business Law Subcommittee on Electronic Commerce and a member of the ebXML joint coordinating committee, noted that IBM could still hold the right to pull its submission at a later date.

He also expressed concern that competitors could be limited in how they implement the standard in their products. "The question becomes, How do you feel building around a standard that's been in some way branded?" said Clark.

Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems Inc., called the move "the renaissance of the old IBM." He said actions like this "raise questions about the entire standards process."

Phipps argued that companies like IBM with large patent portfolios could hijack anything claiming to be an open standard by waiting for adoption and then asserting their rights. "It lets you have a degree of control over your competitors and how they compete with you," he said.

Jeff Cripps, director of industry relations at Southfield, Mich.-based auto industry exchange Covisint LLC, said IBM's claim to some ebXML specifications wouldn't halt his company's plan to use related, but unpatented, ebXML messaging protocols. But IBM's move "doesn't fall into the spirit of open," he said.

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