27.6.06

Internet standards process undermined by software patents

The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) Working Group for a new standard for the "syslog" protocol is being confronted by an undisclosed software patent by one of its Working Group members, the Chinese company Huawei. This patent supposedly covers part of the work done by the standards group. Huawei proposes a royalty free license, but the working group remains unhappy.

"The proposed license can be revoked at any time", explains Jonas Maebe of the FFII, "which means that there is no guarantee to anyone who implements this standard that they won't be hit with arbitrary royalty claims in the future."

Exactly this happened when part of the JPEG image compression algorithm was patented, and the patent owners (Compression Labs Inc.) offered a royalty free license. Compression Labs went bankrupt, Forgent bought the company and its patents, and the result was that thousands of firms were forced to pay for using an image format which had become the standard for every web site and digital camera.

"People will not take the risk of adopting new standards that have this kind of patent risk," adds Rainer Gerhards of the IETF syslog working group. "If we cannot produce new software standards, innovation will slow down and stop. Imagine being forced to use 1980's infrastructure
to do business today."

In Europe, the FFII educates the people about the dangers of software patents, while the EU Commission is still fighting to have these legalised on a wide scale across Europe. Last week, Commissioner McCreevy said before the EP's Legal Affairs Committee that "protection of intellectual property stimulates and rewards innovation". This lofty promise is overly general, since software patents are obviously killing the standards process and all the innovation that depends on it.

FFII president Pieter Hintjens concludes: "Standards are the backbone of the modern IT industry. They create new markets, new businesses and jobs. I challenge any pro-patent lobbyist to explain how a new software standard can be published today without risk of a patent ambush. It's a simple question. The IETF would be keen to have an answer, and so would the hundreds of thousands of IT professionals whose jobs depend on innovation."

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