What’s behind the IoT framework gap

How do you tell ISC License from Apache 2.0? Why is a Patent Non-Assertion Pledge necessary? Since when are “Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory” (RAND) terms no longer sufficient?

First thing you do, go to the Intellectual Property (IP) policy page of open collaborative projects such as Qualcomm-led AllSeen Alliance and Intel-led Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC).

But don’t expect a simple answer. The two competing groups, both built around the Internet of Things, provide respective IP policies, sufficiently different but similarly full of legalese. They’re confusing and complicated enough to make anyone shrug and say: “Who cares? I’m just an engineer.”  

Hold that thought for a moment.

As I talk to the originators of such collaborative projects, I’ve come to realize that the ingenuity of their work done isn’t limited to technical/engineering innovations. Equally important, and perhaps more critical to the foundation of these projects, are such concepts as “free software” and “open source” advocated by the engineering community, along with layers of new legal protections added to IP policies.

In comparing the IP policies of AllSeen with those of OIC, there are enough differences – both subtle and big. They include developer accessibility to code and specs, the way groups are structured and specific licenses.

While IP policies alone aren’t likely to determine the viability of one IoT camp over another (AllSeen over OIC, for example), differences might be big enough – at least in the minds of each group’s promoters – to steer them on separate ways and inhibit them from joining forces, at least for now.

Did engineers win?
As tempting as it is to blame all the complexity of IP policies on lawyers, Andrew Updegrove, founding partner of Gesmer Updegrove LLP, shared a different view.  It isn’t lawyers but the engineering community that has led the world to revolutionize thinking about open source software today, he explained.

Andy Updegrove

Andy Updegrove

“Engineers have actually won the battle,” Updegrove told EE Times. The legal community has been playing catch-up with the engineers since the late 1980’s when “free software” activists like Richard Stallman wrote the first version of GNU General Public License.

Modern high-tech industry groups want to recruit for their cause the best engineering talent available in the world, said Updegrove. They recognize that it isn’t wise to cross talented engineers who adhere to the engineering community’s own code of ethics. As Updegrove explains it, this value system requires that you can use, study, distribute and modify free and open software but you don’t steal from the community. If you improve the code, you give it back to the community.

Instead of throwing up our hands at the complexity of IP policies, it might be time to celebrate the engineering community’s sense of fair play.

However, we should add that lawyers and corporations didn’t just let engineers win and leave them alone.  They couldn’t help horning into the process, riding the claim that they’re protecting users of open-source software.

Thus, the process of developing IP policies inside any big industry group is never simple or straightforward. Perhaps it’s best described as a tug of war between engineers and lawyers.

Looking back on three decades punctuated by the birth, adoption and evolution of various “free software” and “open-source” software development projects, Updegrove observed that the industry has followed two separate routes — one driven by engineers and another by companies — in designing what each community thinks as the best IP policy.

History of IP protections — briefly
Like any technologies used in industry projects inevitably keep evolving, IP policies have also changed, progressed and subsequently got more complicated.

As Updegrove explains, among open source licenses, there is an “extremely brief” permissive free software license called BSD license. It imposes minimal restrictions on the redistribution of covered software, he noted.

Implied in the BSD license was that a downstream developer or user of software licensed under the BSD license won’t be sued for patent infringement. While this is a consensus built up over time among developers and software users, Updegrove pointed out that lawyers feel more secure when patent obligations are more clearly stated. To give more solid legal assurance to users of software, newer open source licenses such as Apache 2.0 license, for example, now include specific text mentioning the grant of patent license.

Next page: OIC consists of two separate legal entities

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