I noticed two patent-related news items tonight that could be of interest to those of us who have to deal with the “fun” of patents as they apply to IT. The first one is an FTC settlement that enforces a patent promise made in a standard body. It is not uncommon for participation in a standardization group to require some form of patent grant (royalty-free, RAND, etc). This is why employees in companies with large patent portfolios have to jump through endless loops and go through legal reviews just to be authorized to join a working group at OASIS (one of the organizations with the clearest patent policy, patiently crafted through a lot of debate). Something similar seems to have happened at IEEE during the work on the Ethernet standard: National Semiconductor promised a flat $1,000 license for two of their patents (pending at the time) that are essential to the implementation of the standard. And we all know that that little standard happened to become quite successful (to IBM’s despair). Years later, a patent troll that had gotten hold of the patents tried to walk away from the promise. In short, the FTC stopped them. If this is of interest to you, go read Andy Updegrove’s much more detailed analysis (including his view that this is important not just for standards but also for open source).
At my level of understanding of intellectual property law as it applies to the IT industry (I am not a lawyer, but I have spent a fair amount of time discussing the topic with them), this sounds like a good decision. But it is a tiny light in an ocean of darkness that creates so many opportunities for abuse. And the resulting fear prevents a lot of good work from happening. The second patent-related news item of the day (a patent reform bill driven by “major U.S. high-tech companies”) might do something to address the larger problem. Reducing damages, strengthening the post-grant review process and ending the “forum shopping” that sends most of these suits to Texas sounds like positive steps. All in all, I am more sympathetic to “major U.S. high-tech companies” (which include my current and former employers) than to patent trolls. At the same time, I have no illusion that “major U.S. high-tech companies” are out to watch for the best interest of entrepreneurs and customers.