The Future Of Innovation Has Patent-Free Standards

It may come as a surprise to find that some supposedly “open“ standards – including those ratified by standards development organisations (SDOs) like ISO, CEN and ETSI – can’t be implemented without going cap-in-hand to the world’s largest companies to buy a licence. As I explained for OSI, it’s the result of a legacy approach to innovation from the days when it was only really about hardware.

As with any legal loophole, simply existing meant it was exploited and became the norm, even if it was initially temporary (“like income tax”). Once exploitation of a legal loophole becomes competitive, it becomes its own justification for the existence of the regulations (“look at the economic value of this segment”) and they become near impossible to remove – even when the original justification has ceased to need preferential protection.

So today we see a swathe of rich consumer electronics and telecoms companies, addicted to the revenue they get from licensing the patents (SEPs) they have embedded in “open” standards*, lobbying hard to ensure their value to the economy is recognised. They have much to lose from the loss of their special status, so invest much to protect it and to glorify it.

On the other hand, software companies have less to gain by the reformation of this anachronism – to the extent they have flirted with SEPs, maybe even a little to lose. Meanwhile, the new world of Open Source powered innovation lacks rich lobbyists due to its diffusion, and is accustomed to working round the obscenity of valuable standards being taxed by patent cartels. While the freedoms of Open Source mitigate to a degree, this means interoperability and interchangeability are being sacrificed on the altar of SEP protection.

It is not an ideological outlook that makes thoughtful Open Source advocates oppose patents in standards. It’s primarily pragmatic. Requiring a patent license to implement a standard implies that those implementing it must engage in private negotiation to get a license to proceed. That’s super-toxic to Open Source, whose mainspring is code owners giving advance, un-negotiated, equal permission to enjoy the software in any way – use, improve, share, monetise – all protected by a rights license reviewed and approved by OSI. So most projects avoid or work around SEP-encumbered standards and the ones that don’t are industry-specific.

OSI thus takes the position that standards destined to be implemented as Open Source must come with all the rights waived (and has done so for 15+ years). For some, that is already true; for others it is being actively resisted. If you want the crop of innovation you have to get the growing conditions right, and this new crop has different needs to the old hardware world and its long horizons. The future of innovation is open innovation, implemented as Open Source. Using anachronistic patent-centric metrics and regulations will chill that future. How about we don’t do that?


*Reusable Footnote: The word “open” is overloaded here.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the OpenUK survey report 2022)

Briefly: FRAND Is Toxic To Collaboration

I’ve repeatedly heard lawyers arguing about whether Open Source licenses and FRAND terms are compatible. But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because the toxin remains whatever the answer – legal compatibility is the wrong lens. When developers come to an Open Source project, they need to find a level playing field, a uniform surface with no traps, a fully illuminated environment with no shadows. Without them, collaboration is compromised.

But the presence of a standard with embedded patents (standard-essential patents or SEPs) under so-called “Fair Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory” (FRAND) terms introduces inequality. Some developers believe they are unaffected, because their usage is purely personal or they are poorly advised. Others are unconcerned because their employer is part of a cross-licensing cartel with the patent holder. But the remainder must each go privately and under NDA to the patent holder(s) and negotiate individual terms to use the patents. They then can’t publicly share the exact arrangements — or possibly even the existence of the arrangement — because of the NDA. Individual terms and secret rights are the opposite of open collaboration and destroy trust.

It’s this inequality that is toxic, not the precise compliance with the legal terms in the Open Source license. Whether great legal minds find the presence of SEPs compatible or incompatible with the license, the inequality of the participants in the community is what makes it avoid SEP-laden standards. That’s why the Open Standards Requirement for Software says any SEPs have to be waived or freely licensed in advance – to restore the level playing field. It’s not because of ideology or an anti-patent agenda or an attempt at market manipulation. The open source network effect underlying the market depends on it.

So learned dissertations about the compatibility of FRAND terms with Open Source licenses may be academically interesting, but they aren’t relevant. All SEPs in standards intended to be implemented as Open Source must be waived or freely pre-licensed, or the standard won’t be implemented by open communities

Briefly: On Overloading “Open”

The word “open” is overloaded. In the domain of standardisers, a process that permits any company to participate (even if doing so is punitively expensive) is considered “open” and the resulting deliverable is considered an “open standard” even if you have to pay to read it and negotiate patent licenses to implement it.

In the domain of software and APIs, it is the deliverable that has to be open – usable for any purpose without negotiation with its rights-holders. This overloading of the term is the origin of many of today’s issues, since – properly understood – Open Source and open standards are conceptually orthogonal

This variation in how “open” is understood within linked and overlapping domains is why “Open Source” is treated as a term of art with a consensually-agreed meaning in the domain of technology – a noun – and not as a descriptive adverbial phrase. If you see a hyphen in the middle of open-source it’s about military/political intelligence and not technology.

AI Code Is Like Public Domain Code

GitHub’s CoPilot tool may well be revolutionary, according to Bradley Kuhn. An AI trained by reading a massive and unidentified corpus of code, assumed to mostly be open source and licensed for any use to Github under their terms of use, it is able to watch what you are coding in your IDE and make suggestions on how to autocomplete the code – potentially at length. It is a kind of Clippy for code. It has just had the ultimate validation; Amazon copied it.

Spitfire in Guildhall Square, Southampton (ironically with no space for a co-pilot)
No room for a co-pilot

Sure, quit Github

While that may seem an unalloyed good to many programmers, there is an outbreak of moral panic surrounding it, as evidenced by the recent call to boycott GitHub because of it. Now, I am all in favour of people using distributed tools instead of centralised ones. Git itself is intended as a distributed tool and in a way it’s offensive for GitHub to have annexed its name to create a centralised and proprietary control point.

I am also keen for everyone as far as they can to exercise self-sufficiency over their computing and control of their personal data, and given Git was written as a response to the final abridgement of that self-sovereignty by the author of an earlier tool that the Linux developers were dependent on, Github is again somewhat offensive. Those would both be fine reasons to encourage people to move on from Github and to escape the social honeypot of carefully crafted network effect funnels that it embodies.

… but not because of Copilot

But Copilot is not a great reason to quit, or at least not for the reasons people insist on articulating. Those reasons seem strong on copyleft maximalism and the homeopathic thinking that assumes because there was GPL vapour in the air everything written at the time is infused. They also seem laced with a residual mistrust of Microsoft.

  • Copilot is unlikely to be infringing copyright. Certainly not in the USA. Probably not in most other places (although see Brown for more nuance). Even for humans, learning patterns doesn’t infringe copyrights, and quoting minimal or essential fragments rarely rises to the level needed for protection by copyright. Copyrights are not the same as patents, and re-expressing the same idea does not amount to infringement – even if such infringement were possible for a machine. Which it is not, so all these considerations are moot in many jurisdictions.
  • Copilot is unlikely to be breaching the GPL. That could only happen if copyright was being infringed. Just because the author of a work doesn’t like use of their code by Microsoft’s tool, that doesn’t somehow create an infringement that triggers the license.
  • Copilot in not morally bankrupt for using open source code for training. The whole point of Open Source Free Software is to give anyone the unconditional right to study the code and learn from it. If that’s a via an automated tool that makes the matter more efficient, it makes no difference.

Making a new thing that does the same as my patented widget is always an infringement of my patent, but making a new thing that does the same as my copyrighted code is not. An unfortunate consequence of the propaganda term “Intellectual Property” is that non-specialists munge all the concepts for all of {Copyright, Patents, Trade Secrets, Trademarks, Database rights} into one big hairball and assume anything matching the hairball triggers some form of infringement of any/all of the concepts. So arguments that mix-and-match IP concepts to imply an infringement are … problematic.

You shouldn’t use it for Open Source though

AI code helpers like Copilot are thus very unlikely to infringe rights per se. But that doesn’t mean code made by them should be welcome in Open Source projects.

To summarise a long article, Reda concludes that the output of an AI like Copilot is best understood as Public Domain. But ironically, that’s the real problem with Copilot for an Open Source developer. Public Domain is not Open Source, and AI-generated code introduces friction that works against the Open Source network effect for just the same reasons. As Brown explains, not every jurisdiction has the same degree of certainty or the same attributes to its conclusion about AI-generated works as seems commonly understood in the USA.

So while you may feel comfortable using AI-generated blocks in your code, what will you write in the pull-request to give others the same confidence? Even Github (and indeed Amazon) are at pains to point out that’s your responsibility, not theirs. Their tool may be a very helpful learning aid, but it’s something of a trap for the responsible Open Source contributor.

There’s a different case to be understood in every jurisdiction both about the code origin and the threshold for copyrightability. While the (many) lawyers I have heard from have largely waved a hand and said the arguments would never stand up in court, the arguable cases create a context where a community can’t rely on AI-generated code without further advice. Just like Public Domain, that added friction makes it non-viable for any community serious about provenance.

The biggest challenges are the ones exerting subtle, systemic steering effects that people don’t take seriously. Github may not be a digital scofflaw, but their tool is a Siren tempting you onto rocks that can ruin communities.

(Thanks to the Patreon backers who made this post possible)