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Standards group beats back patent foes

An attempt to persuade the Internet Engineering Task Force, a key Internet standards body, to abandon its use of patented technologies has ended in defeat.

An attempt to persuade a key Internet standards body to abandon its use of patented technologies has ended in defeat.

The intellectual property rights (IPR) working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) late Wednesday made official what members had known for some time: There is no consensus within the group to restrict the use of patented technologies in IETF standards.

"It's clear that there is no consensus to recharter to change the IETF's IPR policy," Steve Bellovin, the working group's chairman and an AT&T network security researcher, wrote in an e-mail to working group members. "In fact, there is likely consensus the other way, that we should not recharter at this time."

The IETF's vote to maintain its status quo, which lets working groups continue to use patented technologies with so-called reasonable and nondiscriminatory (RAND) licenses, comes after the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) went through more than a year of public controversy over the same issue.

The use of RAND technologies in standards has attracted widespread and organized criticism in the age of open-source development. Open-source developers claim that the threat of being charged royalties for using a standard makes it useless in the context of open-source licenses, which are usually granted free of charge.

Bellovin reported to the working group two weeks after it discussed the issue at the IETF's spring meeting in San Francisco. The IETF formed the working group following a contentious July meeting in Yokohama, Japan, where participants questioned the IETF's current policy that neither restricts nor discourages the use of patented technology in standards.

The IPR working group was chartered to clarify limited aspects of the IETF's current policy, rather than to restrict the use of RAND technologies per se. According to the original charter, the group would recharter to reconsider the RAND policy as a whole if a consensus emerged in favor of doing so.

Following the San Francisco meeting and an e-mail comment period that ended Wednesday night, Bellovin made his determination that the consensus showed opposition to fundamentally changing the patent policy.

Now the working group will conclude its work on three IPR documents having primarily to do with how IETF members must disclose patented contributions. The working group then expects to dissolve.

But Bellovin warned members that the issue of using patented technologies in IETF standards was not yet put to rest.

"That doesn't mean that the IPR issue is dead," Bellovin wrote. "There are a lot of people who remain concerned about it, often with good reason. What isn't clear is what structure should be created for the ongoing discussion...The only option that is effectively ruled out at this time is a new working group specifically chartered to change the current IPR policy; that issue has to be considered settled for the time being."

In the case of the W3C, that standards body began with a policy that curbed the use of patented technologies. Large patent-holders, including IBM and Microsoft, lobbied the group to start permitting the use of RAND technologies, but opponents, including open-source activists, managed to ward off a major change at the Web consortium.

At the IETF, by contrast, there has been a long-standing policy allowing the use of patented technology in standards.

In an e-mail interview, Bellovin said his group was walking a fine line between restricting the use of its technologies by using patents and thwarting development by restricting patented contributions.

"Technology can be unavailable" because it is RAND or because it is royalty free, he wrote. "RAND because of its effect on open-source developers. (And royalty free) because some IPR holders won't bring their technology to the IETF if they can't profit from it. We need to figure out how to move forward to avoid both sets of problems. The IPR question isn't closed by any means, nor should it be."

One critic of the IETF's RAND policy called Bellovin's concerns misplaced.

"We need to be clear that making a patent available for (free) use in a standard doesn't mean the patent holder waives all royalties," wrote Bruce Perens, the open source activist and recent recipient of a $50,000 annuity to fight the use of RAND technologies by standards bodies. "The royalty-free terms at W3C are for implementation of the standard only, not for any other purpose--even in the same program. That gives the patent holders lots of room to make money."

Anticipating the working group's decision on whether to reevaluate the IPR policy as a whole, Perens in November threatened to pack the IETF's IPR mailing list with open-source advocates. He later backed off that threat, and Bellovin expressed relief that he did so.

"As far as I can see, there has been no attempt to pack the mailing list, which makes me happy," Bellovin wrote in the e-mail interview. "It shows that everyone, even those who disagree, respect the process."