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Ghost of Commerce One Looms Over Web Services

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Many of the patents, such as methods for predicting customer or supplier responses, have little value today. However, some could be used to levy infringement cases against the leaders in Web services, including IBM's WebSphere and Microsoft's .Net. For example, Commerce One patented a method for using standardized electronic documents to automate the sale of goods and services over the Internet. It also developed libraries and languages that helped to shape many of the concepts behind XML and SOAP.

Could the winner of the auction sue today's Web services technology vendors and developers for patent infringement? Of course, but it would have a tough case. Commerce One gave much of its intellectual property to the open-source community to get a head start on industry standards. Also, several other vendors--including Ariba and VerticalNet--developed similar technologies. And a wide variety of B2B transaction technologies, including EDI, were in use long before Commerce One was formed.

Still, the Commerce One patents were granted, and they are enforceable by the company buying them. A number of intellectual property companies buy large patent portfolios and sell them off--if one wins the auction, it may be some time before the eventual holder of the Commerce One patents is known. Meantime, there isn't much that you or your vendor can do. Just keep in mind that today's low-cost Web services apps might come with a premium later.