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

Accommodating Open Source In Standards Processes

Holders of zero-tolerance positions on both sides of the divide need to realise that accommodating open source productively inside standards bodies is both viable and happening now.

A fine balance

You’ll recall that open source and open standards are orthogonal concepts where even the words they share (like “open”) are defined differently. That doesn’t mean they are mutually exclusive, nor that they are bad together – they can be cultivated well in the same garden. There is great value from accommodating the two orthogonal concepts so that neither is invalidated by non-mandatory elements of the other. When they combine, great value is unleashed.

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FOSS vs FRAND is a collision of worldviews

Of late there have been a number of interventions sponsored by the world’s largest and most profitable tech patent holders to muddy the waters about open source and FRAND licensing of patents in standards by arguing contentious minutiae like the intent of the authors of the BSD license. This is happening because of the clash of industries I wrote about in 2016, with companies fundamentally based on extracting patent royalties unable to imagine any other way of doing business so mistaking the issue of FRAND as being about license compliance rather than as it being an obstacle to the very purpose of open source in commercial software — collaboration with others.

I found an amazing number of experienced and expert colleagues across industries failing to grasp this fundamental, so I’ve written a paper 🗎 about it. Published today by Open Forum Europe, it explains why compliance legalities are the wrong lens for studying the issue and introduces terms for exploring why representatives from different industry background fail to understand each other despite apparently using the same terminology (spoiler: they mean different things by the same words).

Many thanks to the colleagues who have made valuable suggestions that have improved the clarity of the document, and to the various patrons who have contributed to covering my time. Get in touch if you’d like me to come to your event or company and talk about these things.

The Legislative Disconnect Of The Meshed Society

What is the “meshed society”? It is people, joined together by the Internet, able to interact — to collaborate, to create, to transact and to relate directly with each other — without the need for another person to mediate or authorise. As we discover more and more ways to disintermediate our interactions, society is transformed: from a series of hubs with privileged interconnecting spokes intermediating supply to consumers at their tips, into a constantly shifting meshed “adhocracy” of temporary connections, transactions and relationships of varying length. In the adhocracy, individuals play the roles of user, repurposer, maker, buyer, investor and collaborator in a constantly changing spectrum of combinations.  Continue reading

Can PatentLeft Save Us?

Is it possible to hack the patent system to make patents unusable in the tech industry, like copyleft hacked patent law?


The word “copyleft” arises from a clever hack by Richard Stallman who used the laws relating to copyright — a statutory device to incent creativity by granting limited monopolies to creators — to create a world where creators are incented to share instead of monopolise their work.  Continue reading

MP3 Is Dead! Long Live MP3!

Ignore the coverage saying MP3 is dead. Now all the patents blocking it have expired, it can start to live!

Finally Free

Back in May, there was an unexpected surge in press coverage about the MP3 audio file format. What was most unexpected about it was it all declared that the venerable file format is somehow “dead”. Why did that happen, and what lessons can we learn?
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5 Reasons Facebook’s React License Was A Mistake

Facebook’s BSD+Patent license combo fails not because of the license itself but because it ignores the deeper nature of open source.

Beware Falling Rocks

In July 2017, the Apache Software Foundation effectively banned the license combination Facebook has been applying to all the projects it has been releasing as open source. They are using the 3-clause BSD license (BSD-3), a widely-used OSI-approved non-reciprocal license, combined with a broad, non-reciprocal patent grant but with equally broad termination rules to frustrate aggressors.
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Apache Bans Facebook’s License Combo

The Apache Software Foundation has moved the “Facebook BSD+Patent grant” license combination (FB+PL) to its “Category X” licensing list, effectively banning inclusion of any software under FB+PL from Apache projects. That included RocksDB, which has consequently just dropped FB+PL and added the Apache License v2 on Github, and React.JS which does not look like it will resolve the issue so fast.

Update, 22 September: Facebook has announced it will switch React to the MIT license.

Here’s what we know so far (subject to updates, last day’s in green, latest marked 🆕): Continue reading

FRAND Is Not A Compliance Issue

The European Commission has been persuaded by lobbyists to change its position on standards to permit the use of FRAND license terms for patents applicable to technologies within those standards. This is a massive mistake that will harm innovation by chilling open source community engagement.

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