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The cold welcome to IEEE's latest patent policy explained

Posted: 31 Mar 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IEEE  patent policy  Wi-Fi  InterDigital 

A handful of manufacturers of devices, the people who pay for the use of the technology, essentially co-opted the IEEE patent committee. They got support from people at the Department of Justice who have never worked in this industry and are basing their thinking on economic theory rather than real-world practices. There were closed-door meetings involving a select few participants. Principles of due process, openness and consensus were disregarded.

After the decision, Qualcomm stated that it would reconsider how it participates in IEEE standards development. It will continue to do research and contribute it, but make other licensing commitments.

This week, we've announced something very similar in a letter. We advised the IEEE that our company objects to its new patent policy and, going forward, on a case-by-case basis, will provide alternative licensing assurances to those specified in the 2015 policy.

The situation is difficult for us, because we have a long and valued history with the IEEE. One of our engineers and a current member of our board of directors are IEEE Fellows, a very high honour. Our former chief scientist, Brian Kiernan, was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the IEEE, ironically for "outstanding skills and diplomacy, team facilitation and joint achievement, in the promotion of computer standards where individual aspirations, corporate competition and organisational rivalry could otherwise be counter to society's benefit."

It is likely that other companies will soon follow suit in objecting to the new IEEE patent policy. The result is frankly a mess. Now contributions likely will be made under a myriad of licensing assurances, perhaps very different from one another.

What was once an evaluation of technical merit for proposals becomes a Rubik's cube analysis as engineers may now have to weigh technological advantage against licensing terms and their implications. In fact, when one working group in 802.11 met a couple of weeks ago, they were forced to seek further guidance from the IEEE on the patent mess. I'm sure they would prefer to simply evaluate contributions that could be beneficial to the evolution of WiFi, but now the process has been thrown into a state of uncertainty.

When developers were afforded a fair return on their innovations, the system worked. When you start to tilt the playing field in favour of implementers, as the IEEE has done, the market will collapse.

We are beginning to see the first signs already. Under the new policy, panels of engineers can't evaluate new technology contributions solely on their merits because of a patent mess. This is no way to advance technology for humanity.

- Bill Merritt
  InterDigital


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