Last month, IBM notified the Organisation 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 OASIS board when IBM submitted the Trading Partner Agreement Markup Language (TPAML) 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 would not charge for use of the technology, many viewed its claim to the patent as a betrayal of the 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, chief information officer at Best Western International and president of the Open Travel Alliance, which plans to standardise on the ebXML specifications.
Ralph Berwanger, ambassador for standards at e-commerce network provider bTrade, 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.
IBM last week said the company had decided to offer TPAML "at zero cost" to OASIS licensees but would not say why it had submitted patent claims.
However, in a 17 April 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."
Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems, 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.