mnot’s blog

Design depends largely on constraints.” — Charles Eames

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


The FSF, IETF and Use Patents

Over the past few weeks the Free Software Foundation has had its knickers in a twist about TLS authentication — specifically, its patent encumbrance;

That patent in question is claimed by RedPhone Security. RedPhone has given a license to anyone who implements the protocol, but they still threaten to sue anyone that uses it.

If our voice is strong enough, the IETF will not approve this standard on any level unless the patent threat is removed entirely with a royalty-free license for all users.

Note the terminology; they’re initiating a campaign against the IETF for potential encumbered use of the technology, not implementation.

I’ve talked about the very real evils of “use” patents before, so points to the FSF for caring, but frankly, what they’re doing about it sucks. Deluging a standards body with e-mails from users who neither have read the document nor understand the process context just makes them (the FSF and their willing cattle) look stupid.

As others on the IETF “main” list have pointed out, if we want to go after “use” patents, we’ll have to tear down the Internet and build another one in a different jurisdiction because everything — and I mean everything — is encumbered by some sort of use patent.

This is the dirty little secret that I was talking about before; lots of companies participate in “open” standards efforts in a bid to foster adoption, and then selectively charge an IPR tax for use from the most likely candidates (read: fattest wallets and no IPR to threaten back with). RedPhone’s only mistake was to be a bit ham-fisted about it and effectively try to publicly claim all use of the standard as its own.

So, to the FSF I say “nice try,” but stopping this in the standards bodies is chasing the wrong end of the stick. If you really want to stop this, try making it harder to get a use patent, making it harder to keep them secret, and educating users about their perils.


Mitch said:

Huh? First you suggest that the response to use patents has to be all-or-nothing (“tear down the Internet and build another one in a different jurisdiction”). But then at the end you propose some responses that are a little more gradual.

So what’s wrong with trying to prevent the standardization of use-encumbered technologies? In you previous post you mentioned a strategy that a “rapacious” vendor could take: “hoard IP relating to the use of a technology, push it as a standard to get wide adoption, and then cherry-pick cashed-up users to get the most revenue from patent enforcement.” Preventing this standardization directly addresses the middle step of that process.

Wednesday, February 25 2009 at 5:33 AM