MP3 patent mess and lessons for standards making
The New York Times reports (Patent Fights Are a Legacy of MP3’s Tangled Origins, Douglas Heingartner, 5 March 2007, C03) on the mess over patent licensing for MP3 technology. While most (including Microsoft) had assumed/hoped that if they paid licensing fees to Frauenhofer they’d have the patent basis largely covered, now Alcatel (armed with the former Bell Labs patent portfolio from Lucent) and others are showing up demanding licensing fees, too. Microsoft just got hit with a with $1.5 billion patent infringement judgment in the United States. Other vendors with MP3 as an integral part of their product are worried that they existing licensing arrangments may not insulate them from new demand for fees.
Leonardo Chiariglione, chair of the MPEG group, declares that this is a bad for MP3 deployment:
“I consider the situation in general not positive for the wide adoption of the standard, which is what I have been working on.”
At the same time he laments the fact that there is little the standards body (ISO and MPEG) can do. Says that Times article:
For those confused about where to turn to obtain an MP3 license for a new device or piece of software, he offers little solace. “The rule is that the MPEG working group is not allowed to consider patent issues in our technical work, so there is nothing I can do about it….”
W3C’s Patent Policy takes a more activist approach to such matters. We won’t standardize any technology that cannot be implemented royalty-free, and if we find that there are threats to the RF status of a standard after it’s adopted, we can convene a special group to take action, including recommending changing or rescinding the standard.