In a recent blog I wrote about the emergence of collaborative innovation among people working together in open communities. I referenced the work of Professor Yochai Benkler from the Yale Law School who in a famous paper commonly known as "Coase's Penguin" observed that this collaboration by self-organizing groups is giving rise to a serious mode of economic production complementing the work done in classic, hierarchically organized firms or enterprises.
For such open, collaborative communities to be successful, they must attract very talented individuals from around the world, and that has certainly been the case with the communities that have formed around Linux, Apache or Grid Computing. But, it takes more than talent for an organization to be successful. The management of intellectual property (IP) is an example of an increasingly important task that an open community needs to be good at, especially one like the Linux community that has achieved great success in the marketplace, thus attracting the attention of those who view it as a competitive threat and might want to use IP as a “FUD” factor, as well as those who are looking to enrich themselves by claiming IP infringements.
IP management is fairly well understood if you are a business, but how do you manage IP with a dispersed community of individuals like those supporting Linux and other open source projects, which generally have no entity charged with managing IP and collecting patents? We are all learning in this area. One approach is for individual businesses to pledge patents in support of open communities. We in IBM did this with our patent pledge earlier this year, which granted access to over 500 software patents to individuals and groups working on open source software like Linux. More recently we pledged access to our patent portfolio for the development of selected open healthcare and education software standards. Other companies like Red Hat, Novell, Nokia and Sun have also made patent pledges in various forms in support of open communities.
Still another way to support these open communities is to work not just company by company, but collectively. An example of this approach is the Patent Commons Project established by OSDL to provide a central location where software patents and patent pledges from a variety of sources are housed for the benefit of open source communities.
A major next step is being taken this week with the formation of the Open Invention Network (OIN), a new company with the basic mission of acquiring patents and using them to further the advancement of Linux. OIN is creating an innovative business model founded on openly sharing patents in a collaborative environment. Patents owned by OIN will be available on a royalty-free basis to any company, institution or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against Linux. IBM, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony provide financial support to OIN.
To me, the essence of open source is collaborative innovation -- that is, working with smart people all over the world as a community to address and solve important problems. The reason Linux is so successful is that it has attracted a huge following of top programmers, computer scientists and other technical experts around the world, all of whom are collaborating in its development, design and support. We want our clients, developers and business partners to be able to benefit from that huge source of innovation. The Open Invention Network is a significant step in ensuring that this will happen now and well into the future.