IBM's Bizarre Business-Patent Strategy


By Tony Kontzer

How doth IBM screw up? Let me count the ways.

No, I'm not criticizing Big Blue's on-again, off-again purchase of Sun Microsystems. Should that actually happen, it appears to be a smart acquisition that adds a ready-made stream of profits from server sales.

But the timing of IBM's shopping spree couldn't have been worse. The spate of news coming out of the company lately makes it look like a candidate for some kind of experimental psychoactive drug. One minute, the company is said to be in talks to buy Sun, but says it won't comment on rumors. Of course not, because at that same moment, IBM was reported to be making decisions on which employees will be among the thousands to be carved out of the company, their work shipped off to India.

Then, almost on cue, news begins circulating of IBM filing what appears to be a ridiculously frivolous patent application, U.S. Patent Application 20090083107, which would cover "a method and system for strategic global resource sourcing" (i.e., offshore outsourcing). It's a move that would seem to indicate IBM wants to make money off of American jobs being cut and shipped to cheaper markets by a) selling a system that computes the savings (and probably the tax implications) of such moves, and b) suing anyone who tries to muscle in on that market.

But wait! The same day, IBM pulls said patent application amid cries of outrage in the media and on online message boards, and is soundly ripped by politicians in New York, who begin calling for investigations into whether state and federal funds were used in developing the software in question. Better yet, the state funds being looked at were granted to IBM for the purpose of creating and saving jobs. Oh, irony of ironies.

If all that isn't enough, nearly a year-and-a-half earlier, IBM pulled a similar patent application covering a system for analyzing offshore outsourcing activities. Its reason? Only that the company had, just months after that application was filed in early 2006, established a policy against filing so-called business method patents.

Business method patents have become the scourge of the technology patent scene in recent years, with fly-by-night companies filing dozens of applications covering various technology-enabled business processes--processes they didn't even have a hand in developing--in the hopes of being able to rake in royalties and legal settlements. So it would seem that at least one of IBM's decisions was sound--the one to cease filing those types of patent applications.

But why on earth did the company file its latest application, which is clearly in violation of a rule it established nearly 3 years ago? And why now, of all possible times?

Wouldn't you think that one of the many brilliant people at IBM who no doubt were aware this latest patent application would be filed might have said, uh, guys, maybe we should wait for the dust to settle from this juxtaposition of layoffs and giant acquisitions? If anyone from IBM's patent office is reading this, I'm sure the readers would love hear your explanation.


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