Electronic Design

Patently Standard?

Many products live and die by standards. They can also exist and terminate based on patent royalties. The combination can place embedded developers be-tween a rock and a hard place when it comes to designing systems that must employ the latest standards.

The Java Community Process (JCP) started by Sun seems to work well. But like other standards organizations, it can have problems when outside forces come into play. This is especially true with regard to the hotly debated issue of software patents.

Another standards group, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, www.w3c.org), has had extended discussions regarding its standards and reasonable and nondiscriminatory (RAND) licensing. To date, it has kept away from RAND, and I hope it stays on that side of the fence. These types of standards are too important to have a particular company or individual dictate their use.

Unfortunately, even trying to stay away from proprietary standards isn't easy. The International Organization for Standards (ISO) JPEG graphics compression standard is under fire from a little known company called Forgent Networks. The company didn't develop patent 4,698,672, but acquired it. Only a couple of years are left until the patent expires. Yet that was enough to get Sony to license it for a sizable chunk of cash. The ISO may even pull it as a standard, but that's another story.

Because the patent wasn't enforced until now, it may be too late. Check out "Doctrine of Laches and Patent Infringement Litigation" by Peter Szendro of Converium (www.converium.com). Szendro has a number of more recent papers on the subject as well.

Personally, I think the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov) is assigning too many software patents. Unfortunately, getting a patent overturned due to prior art after the patent is issued is a very expensive process. This affects anyone using standards, including you.

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