When Patents are AllSeen

Feb 06, 2015

The Internet of Things will only work if everyone sits down and plays nice with each other, so it is somewhat against the spirit of the whole thing that there are currently (at least) two consortia competing to create the definitive industry standard. It is even more troubling when a member leaves over an IP dispute, as happened last August when Broadcom left the Open Interconnect Consortium set up by Intel.

Creating industry standards is always a tricky issue. It forces fierce competitors to lay down their arms and collaborate on something that will be fundamental to the future success of their products. It compels them to embrace a concept usually anathema to their business model and company culture: open source IP policies. But without shared IP there cannot be an Internet of Things; there can be a proprietary Nest Network and a proprietary Philips Network, but not a true Internet of Things.

The body managing the proposed standard must tread a treacherous path between an IP policy that ensures openness and interoperability and one that is acceptable to members with valuable IP portfolios. It must draw a clear line between what is included in the standard, the IP equivalent of the DMZ, and what companies can claim as their own territory in the open competitive landscape.

Broadcom reportedly left the OIC because they didn’t feel their patents would be sufficiently protected. OIC members are required to sign up to RAND-Z terms, meaning Broadcom would have been forced to offer reasonable and non-discriminatory licenses with zero royalties for any code they contributed that was subject to a patent. By rejecting these IP policies, Broadcom planted a flag in the sand for other OEMs who see the advantages of joining a collaborative group such as the OIC but are concerned about losing control of their IPRs.

So when The AllSeen Alliance released their IP policy on patents last week, they understood how crucial the issue was to existing members and the future success of the Alliance. Their AllJoyn framework code is already covered under copyright by the ISC open-source license, but up until last week the issue of patents had not been directly addressed. As the Broadcom debacle over at the OIC demonstrated, the issue is complicated yet crucial.

AllSeen’s cautious, consultative approach now seems prudent. They waited until they had built the certification and compliance program. Then, once members had a better understanding of the environment, they moved onto a patent policy.

Although there are plenty of standard open source licenses available, according to Philip DesAutels, senior director of IoT at the Linux Foundation, which hosts the AllSeen Alliance, there were no “off the shelf” options that could fit the IoT environment and satisfy stakeholders.

"What we're announcing now is an IP policy that sits on top of the ISC copyright license, to add the patent pledge in," DesAutels said in a press release. “The best approach proved to be starting with well understood patent pledge terms and aligning them to the goals of the Alliance.”

Essentially, anyone who goes through the certification process with the AllSeen Alliance gets a pledge that none of the members of the Alliance will sue for use of their technology. After certification they even get to use the Designed for AllSeen logo without paying any licensing or membership fee.

Critically, it has an enforcement provision, so that if a member company decides to sue for infringement, all the other AllSeen member companies will defend the certified device, app, or service maker against their fellow Alliance member. So while it’s substantively different from the IOC’s IP deal, which lets members license the protocol for free, it effectively gets the same result. Meaning startups can safely join with established OEMs to get on with building the Internet of Things.

It’s obvious that interoperability is crucial to the success of any IoT standard and can’t be hamstrung by an overly restrictive IP policy. Similarly, those with valuable patent portfolios must be brought into the tent and can’t be expected to forgo their IPRs, as Broadcom’s exit from the IOC demonstrated. Has The Allseen Alliance struck the right balance? We’ll see who gets on board in the coming months. Broadcom may well be a bellwether.

(note: Two Bulls is a member of the AllSeen Alliance however the views expressed here are solely our own and do not necessarily reflect any official positions of the Alliance nor of any other Alliance Members.)
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