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Sun's Schwartz guns for patent glories

As the tech industry focuses in on patents, Sun files a claim over a per-employee pricing plan, News.com has learned.

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Stephen Shankland
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Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz, who speaks often of innovation in sales methods and not just technology, is seeking a patent on the company's per-employee software pricing plan, CNET News.com has learned.

Other co-authors of the unpublished patent application, filed in July, are Chief Marketing Officer Anil Gadre and Director of Worldwide Marketing Aisling MacRunnels. In addition, Schwartz is co-author of two other patent applications relating to Sun's three-dimensional Looking Glass user interface.

The existence of two of Schwartz's patent applications was disclosed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The third patent application will be disclosed in a future filing, Sun said.

Schwartz in 2003 introduced a new subscription pricing plan for Sun's Java Enterprise System server software collection, charging $100 per year per employee and letting the customer use as much of the software as desired. A 1,000-employee company would pay $100,000 per year.

"It's his responsibility to shareholders to try to protect business ideas," said RedMonk analyst James Governor. "You can't blame him for trying. Amazon tried to patent one-click (Internet purchasing), and it worked."

Patents are gaining prominence in computing. IBM has long led the industry in accumulating them, but Microsoft is gunning for a dramatic increase and Hewlett-Packard boasts a burgeoning portfolio. The arrival of open-source software has meant new complications; Linux seller Red Hat has criticized Sun for its software patent policies.

"I think that IBM in particular, and Microsoft increasingly, have incredible patent arsenals. Sun needs some protections, too," Governor said.

An area of contention has been business method patents such as Priceline's reverse auction on the Internet

. The head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office acknowledged in 2002 that the office hadn't been selective enough in that area.

"For at least the last 20 years, the advances in technology have presented challenges in terms of how you protect the new technology with intellectual property," said Gary Ritchey, a patent attorney at Townsend and Townsend and Crew. "Because we have new things invented that never were part of what people conceived of when patent protection first applied, there have always been issues of whether those technologies should come under the same umbrella as patent protection."

If the patents are granted, Sun will donate any money they generate to charities, Schwartz said.

The pricing patent application, called a "Method for Licensing Software," is summarized as a "method for licensing software to an entity, including determining a per-employee cost for the software, determining a number of employees of the entity, and determining a total licensing cost using the number of employees and the per-employee cost, wherein the total licensing cost comprises a software license for all employees of the entity and all customers of the entity."

Of the two other applications, Sun said one is for changing how objects are shown in a 3D display environment, monitoring usage information of those objects and prominently locating those that are used most frequently.

The other application is for displaying 2D information on 3D windows. If a window is displaying particular information, related information can be shown on a second surface of that window; Sun demonstrates the idea by showing a window being flipped over so notes can be written on it.