More Open XML Discussion - more misunderstandings about standards and IP

There is much to talk about based on what has been happening in the discussion of Open XML these days. First, ISO has posted a FAQ about 29500. The approach taken in the FAQ is both direct and simplified. The rabbit hole on standards goes deep indeed, and any such FAQ must simplify to make it digestible for the layman reader.

An example of someone misunderstanding standards and IP issues would be Groklaw in this post. The post displays many of the misunderstandings about IP in standards that I see echoed around the blogosphere.

I will say that the author of the Groklaw post got it right when they wrote that, "Patents and Linux and FOSS don't mix." But the author jumps off the tracks completely when the observation is followed up with, "So RAND terms in Microsoft's hands are discriminatory."

I think it is important that anyone offing an opinion on the OSP should first ask him or herself a question: do I really understand IP licensing in the world of standards? I'd suggest that the author the Groklaw post didn't ask this question up front and would benefit from some boning up - it would help get the story straight.

Here are some things I think may be helpful in this discussion. By the way, my answer to the question I just posed in the previous paragraph is, "sort of."

1) RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory) did not originate with software. It is a commonly used acronym but has different meanings in different standards bodies. It has many parts - more than just patent rights, more than royalty understanding is that it is a framework designed to provide both incentive for contribution and implementation. The reason I agree with the statement about patents and Free Software not mixing is that there have been terms written into GPL licenses that explicitly conflict with software patents. Okay, that is the choice of the authors and users of those licenses. But the fact that those licenses were written does not mean that the RAND terms that have evolved over the past century of standardization are suddenly invalid.

2) The ISO/IEC JTC 1 patent policy is applied uniformly to all standards in the ISO/IEC JTC 1 arena. The idea that the RAND declaration regarding Open XML is any different than a RAND declaration for ODF or for any other ISO Standard (such as...oh I don't about PDF just for fun. Remember the huge list of patents that Adobe used to put on the welcome screen of the Acrobat reader alone?). The terms provided for the Microsoft patents in Open XML are legally irrevocable. They are global. Since they are broader than the RAND declaration for JTC 1, the attempt at FUD by the Groklaw post should be recognized for what it is...FUD.

3) The various covenants not to sue or similar promises from a few (mind you, this is hardly common practice in the software industry today) of the big vendors are all born of the same desire - to help bridge the gap between Free Software and software patents used in specifications. Forget the philosophical and ontological debates about software patenting for a moment and just deal with the fact that the law in a number of countries recognizes software patents as valid IP today. And, judging by the continued pace of patent filings, it would seem that more than a few people out there are seeking to use software patents as a legitimate means for protecting their innovations. Heck, even some of the long-time Free Software advocates are looking at the positive implications of patenting software as a means to encourage greater innovation. Yet all of these bridges run into some snag or another on various points. So the question that comes to mind is how important are those snags?

Before you get your hair in a knot over this, consider for a moment that all Linux distributions come with code licensed under reciprocal licenses that conflict and (in theory) should block the distribution of the software. Oops, no one seems to care about that snag. Okay, Linux also ships with code that implements standards specifications covered by RAND terms from many parts of the industry that should block the distribution of the software. Oops, no one seems to care about that snag either. Hmmm - I'm wondering if those complaining about the OSP understand the nature of IP terms in standards to begin with, since they don't seem to mind these other, potentially more-serious issues.

4) Many of the terms included in standards IP licensing are there for a rainy day vs. for any practical use. In many cases, IP holders will provide RAND terms that include royalty terms yet never, ever collect a penny in royalties. Why, you might ask? Those terms are there as a defensive mechanism. This is true for the entire concept of defensive suspension and to a large degree the concepts around limitation of scope as well.

5) The concept of "discrimination" in the standards world of RAND is another one where you really need a lawyer to talk you through what it means and/or doesn't mean. I am not a lawyer, but to my understanding it has a great deal more to do with the uniformity of your application of terms to like parties than it has to do with any one party being able to take those terms or not. If there are lawyers reading this thread I'd love the input. Everyone should have the choice of what license they use - but there may be implications for the use of those particular terms as they will interact with the rest of the world.

Concluding this too-long blog post...

As you can see, looking at the real issues on the table about IP and standards is a good thing to do. I am on board with the idea that the established world of IP in standards needs to be looked at carefully in context with the amount of work happening under the concepts of reciprocal licenses. It would be helpful if folks who speak with a loud voice also seek to do so in an educated fashion.

I am a serious proponent of participation in the process - but that needs to be for all parties, large and small alike. But that means keeping an open mind while you are also advocating open standards.