We’ve written many times about the need for comprehensive patent reform to stop innovation-killing trolls. While we continue to push for reform in Congress, there are a number of steps that companies and inventors can take to keep from contributing to the patent troll problem. These steps include pledges and defensive patent licenses. In recent years, companies like Twitter and Tesla have promised not to use their patents offensively. This week, blockchain startup Blockstream joins them with a robust set of commitments over how it uses software patents.
Blockstream’s commitments are meant to ensure that the company only uses its patents defensively, and therefore, to assure users and developers of Bitcoin technology that they can use Blockstream’s inventions without fear of patent litigation. It made three interlocking commitments:
- It adopted a patent pledge promising that it will only use its own software patents defensively—that is, it won’t use them to sue or demand licensing fees others for using similar technologies, but it may use them to defend itself from the patent lawsuits of others.
- It shared its patents under the Defensive Patent License (DPL), licensing its patents to any other person or company who agrees to the terms of the DPL.
- It introduced a modified version of the Innovator’s Patent Agreement, an agreement with Blockstream inventors that it may file patents for their inventions but may not use them offensively (if Blockstream ever assigns a patent to another party, the agreement would apply to that party too).
Together, these three commitments represent a huge step forward—they assure that Blockstream’s patents will never be used to attack others, even if the company goes out of business or sells them to another company.
In its patent pledge, the company admits that it would prefer not to file software patents at all and says that it hopes that the pledge will one day be irrelevant:
Software patents have too often been used as a means for stifling innovation, rather than encouraging it. In an ideal world, we would refuse to patent the software we invent. But this strategy would place the entire Bitcoin community at risk. […] Even when prior art exists that could challenge the validity of issued patents, such challenges are both difficult and expensive to mount, with often unpredictable results, and cannot be relied on as a solution. This leaves us with two choices: to work in secret, or to patent as a defensive strategy.
We believe, then, that the way to ensure that our technology remains most usable is to obtain patents ourselves and make binding promises for their use. We look forward to a legislative environment where this is not needed: our strategy is not a substitute for attempts to reform or eliminate software patents, or to invalidate issued patents, including our own. But until we can ensure that no one can own exclusive rights to the technologies surrounding Bitcoin, we want to ensure that they remain available to the community.
We’re glad to see Blockstream taking this step, and it’s provided an excellent template for other software companies to borrow. We also admire the company’s acknowledgement that licenses and pledges alone can’t fix a patent system that’s all too easily exploited by patent trolls, nor can it stop the real root cause of the problems in the patent system, the flood of stupid patents.
For more information on patent licensing alternatives, check out Hacking the Patent System, the updated and expanded guide we published earlier this year.