Despite No One Wanting It To, ITU Seeks To Butt In On Patent Issues Too

from the searching-for-relevance dept

We’ve been talking a fair bit about the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — the legacy group that’s been around in one form or another for over a century and a half, trying to regulate how telco systems work across national borders. Much of the concern has been about its plans to expand its purview over the internet. As many people have noted, it really seemed like the ITU was realizing that its primary function was losing relevance, as basic telco issues become less and less important as they are superseded by the internet. So, without any reason, need or mandate, the ITU is just looking to force itself into a position of internet governance as well — with potentially horrific results. Of course, that’s not the only arena in which the ITU is trying to shove its weight around and assert relevance where it has none. We’ve already pointed out that it also wants in on internet security, despite near complete ignorance on the topic.

And that’s not all… Back in July, we wrote about the ITU’s plan to host a patent summit to respond to the various patent thickets and disputes, with a main focus on the smart phone patent thicket. Now, having discussed problems with patents, and the smartphone patent thicket in particular, this might seem like a good thing, but when the summit was announced, we wondered if the ITU really understood the issue, and whether it would even have the right people participating. While the full details of the summit were apparently off the record, Nick Ashton-Hart’s report on what he could say about the event suggests that, once again, it was entirely about the ITU inserting itself where it doesn’t belong and where no one wants it to go. He notes that all of the ITU’s public statements about the summit positioned itself as “riding to the rescue” of various patent disputes. But there were significant problems with this… in that no one wants the ITU’s “help” here:

1 – First, the was an overwhelming lack of support for action at the ITU by the participants. I’ve been to many international meetings over more than two decades. You can tell, through the often exaggerated politeness in which positions are inevitably couched, when a group is willing to continue to discuss an issue and when it is not. It was completely obvious long before the end of the day that there was insufficient interest in the room to take forward the discussion – at the ITU, at least.

2 – Secondly, the ITU had clearly decided in advance what was going to happen, and expected the participants to rubber-stamp their conclusions. This was obvious when an ITU official read out a pre-prepared speech at the end of the meeting, including the following:

“I believe that providing market players with clear, transparent, effective and up-to-date patent policies works for the benefit of the industry as a whole…As the Secretary-General stated in the opening, ITU has a determination to take a leading role in the development of effective RAND based policies in the ICT sector…”

Followed by this bombshell:

“I will therefore request the TSB Director’s Ad Hoc Group on Intellectual Property Rights, which will meet tomorrow, to begin work on a recommendation aimed at providing high level principles clarifying the meaning of reasonable, and the issue of injunctive relief, in the RAND context.”

In other words, ‘we’re going to do what we want and we expect you to go along with it.’

Basically, before the meeting even started, the ITU had decided what the problem was. But, since it’s jumping into a space where it doesn’t understand the issues, it’s suggesting a “solution” that doesn’t make sense, and which was clearly not supported by others at the summit. Nick explains further:

I recall only one of the 100 participants asking the ITU itself to do anything as an outcome of the meeting – though a few did suggest that standards organisations in general – of which the ITU is one of many – could usefully look at various technical issues (such as transparency of ownership of SEPs).

He goes on to point out that the focus on standards-essential patents is misguided, and was not a main concern of the attendees. In fact, he even notes one participant who got there thinking that SEPs were a problem, but left with his mind changed — further evidence that the ITU had decided well before the meeting what the “result” would be — and the fact that the summit didn’t support its position was simply ignored.

Once again, it appears to just be a situation where the ITU has little knowledge, no experience and no mandate… but where it’s trying to shove itself in, as it tries to remain relevant in a world that no longer needs it.

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Comments on “Despite No One Wanting It To, ITU Seeks To Butt In On Patent Issues Too”

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11 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

once one industry, body or group starts to try to do something with something that it doesn’t understand or has no intention of improving, just trying to better it’s own position, along comes a myriad of others, all wanting to achieve the same thing, what is best for itself. instead of leaving that something alone, as it was working fine without any interference, it has to be totally fucked up, simply because some moron decides that ‘this needs regulating, this needs restricting, this needs whatever’! the internet will end up going from the best thing that ever happened to this planet to date, to the worst, just because certain people think they have the right to dictate how something has to work, who can use it and under what circumstances, even though those people have no idea what they are doing!

Dave Burstein (profile) says:

Great if ITU can make patent charges reasonable

Mike
I disagree with you here. Whatever else one may think about the ITU, it remains a key standards body. ITU sets the international standards for DSL and many other products.

When a manufacturer’s patent is included in a standard, it could be a license to print money. The supposed solution is to require everyone involved to license patents in a “reasonable and non-discriminatory” manner.

In practice, neither U.S. standards groups like ATIS and the ITU itself do essentially nothing to enforce the requirement of “reasonable” and throughly unreasonable charges are added to many products. This is anti-competitive. More important to me is that it raises consumer prices.

I therefore believe that the standards bodies should take active steps to ensure the charges are “reasonable.” A logical first step is set a definition of “reasonable” charges as a % of product price.

For example, if the target is set at 10% and there are 50 patents involved, any company seeking more than a fraction of one percent would have an extreme burden of proof. In the current system, we often have companies looking for 2-10% royalties on minor elements, enough to raise prices significantly.

You reported the problem well, and suggested many sensible ways forward. I think any responsible standards group should jump in and do what it takes to keep royalties reasonable.

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