Don't assume because a standard is open that it's free to use - IBM patent move sets a worrying precedent for adopters
Scott Wilson, CETIS staff
April 17, 2002

It may be an "open standard" but it may not be free to use - this is the message after IBM sets uncomfortable legal precedent for standards adopters.

In a surprise move, IBM has made claims that the e-business standard ebXML incorporates two of its patented technologies. If proven, IBM will provide a "license on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms" to anyone implementing the standard.

The idea that you may have to pay for a technology license before you can work with an industry standard does not sit happily alongside the ideals of widespread adoption and conformance.

This is not just an ebXML issue, either - according Stephen Downes at OLDaily, it sets a precedent that could potentially affect adopters of educational specifications such as IMS and SCORM.

According to Downes, "[] even if IBM backs away from any claim to royalties - which I expect it will - they nonetheless wield a powerful weapon (which amounts to a veto) when dealing with standards users. I cannot caution educational software and content developers enough: do not lock yourselves into a single standard."

Like ebXML, both IMS and SCORM receive technical contributions from large corporations, and may incorporate underlying standards where companies such as IBM and Microsoft have an interest, for example the SOAP and WSDL protocols for web services.

The patent disclosure seems to have taken many of the groups working on ebXML by surprise. According to Ray Walker, steering group chairman of the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business, "We developed ebXML under the assumption that it would be royalty-free and we are surprised to see this come out of the woodwork at this stage."