IBM opens patent vault for healthcare development

Aims to revolutionise healthcare and education by opening up its massive patent portfolio to developers

Matt Whipp
25 Oct 2005

IBM wants to revolutionise healthcare and education in the same way the Internet revolutionised, well, the Internet, by opening up its massive patent portfolio to developers.

Big Blue's vault is stuffed with 45,000 patents, and in 2004 alone IBM received 3,248 U.S. patents from the USPTO, marking the twelfth consecutive year that it had received more US patents than any other company in the world.

Now, developers working on 'open healthcare and education software standards built around web services, electronic forms and open document formats' are to be granted royalty-free access to this library.

IBM's Adrian Hill, NHS and healthcare client manager, said he wanted the initiative to foster innovation and promote interoperability across the sector 'in the same away that the Internet has been such an inspiration and has undergone so many improvements', due to its open nature.

He said he expects that although uptake would initially be quite slow, this would pick up dramatically 'once businesses start to take on board the areas this opens up for them'.

It's not quite as straightforward as that though. IBM has put some hefty caveats on what kind of projects will gain access. Although it paints with a broad brush the kind of software it will offer access to, it also says that these are 'selected'.

Hill said the exact terms of what projects qualify for patent access have yet to be decided, and will be worked out following the industry reaction to the announcement. But he expects companies to adhere to the 'spirit of the project' and described any instance where third parties abused this patent access as 'extraordinarily regrettable'.

Companies that developed software under this initiative and abused that relationship, perhaps putting subsequent products to use outside of this remit might still find themselves at the wrong end of a patent suit. 'IBM is very diligent about its IP,' warned Hill.

Clearly there is a lot of detail to be chiseled out to give both IBM and potential third party developers the confidence in this initiative to form such a relationship.

But Hill maintains that this is a massive industry with enormous potential. He said IBM already has a huge constituency to promote this program to, and is already working with the likes of Snomed and Diacom in the US.

IBM stands to benefit from this in a number of ways from a business perspective. It already has large investments in technologies such as virtualisation as well as R&D in industry areas such as life sciences, all of which would be important for developing new solutions. Hill talked of remote diagnostics and monitoring technologies, for example. But also as a door into more mundane projects such as replacing aging NT boxes in GP surgeries, which should sit well with IBM's Linux strategy. 'There will be spin-offs from [the innovations brought about by accessing IBM patents], and IBM has a vast portfolio of products,' said Hill.

Certainly one aspect IBM is promoting with this new patent strategy is the use of the open document format, as adopted in the latest OpenOffice suite but which has so far been met with intransigence from Microsoft in terms of getting it into its Office suite.

Yet the public sector, at least in the US, is keen to adopt precisely this kind of standard, which doesn't need proprietary software to access such documents, which costs less money, and also doesn't run the risk of becoming obsolete in the future.

Quite how long Microsoft will be able to stand firm on this if its competitors successfully use it as a handle to the door of government contracts remains to be seen.

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