If things don't go right at the federal bankruptcy court in San Francisco this December 6th, Web services could potentially have its very own SCO Group drama at some time in the not-so-distant future. There's an effort underway in what could be the industry's most important test to date of its ability to shield Web services methods from legal shenanigans.
The assets of Commerce One, a bankrupt software company, will be liquidated via auction on that date, and those assets include 39 patents covering technical protocols that tie into the foundations of leading Web services standards. The patents in question are said to cover basic technology for facilitating network transactions by identifying a transaction in terms of input and output documents. CommerceNet, a nonprofit consortium, is attempting to drum up industry support to buy the patents and put them into an ironclad lockbox. The group warns that such patents could be "broadly asserted against companies completing transactions using Web service interface descriptions (WSDL), service registries (UDDI), and documents composed from XML building blocks."
Some big IT providers, including Google, Oracle and Sun Microsystems, are being asked to (and presumably are considering) pool bids for the patents under the aegis of CommerceNet. There is no word yet on whether IBM or Microsoft would support the effort. "It's like buying up nuclear material so it doesn't fall into the wrong hands," said Jason Schultz, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. No, we certainly don't want to find our Web services protocols showing up on eBay. The big vendors relentlessly talk the talk about "openness," but will they walk the walk and defend it?