A split FTC sides with standards over patents

Andy Updegrove posts yet another insightful analysis on the evolution of standards in the modern technology. He reports that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has decided 3-to-2 that a licensing promise made in a standards development process trumps the private right to hold licensees for ransom when a 3rd party later acquires the patent. This is bad news for patent trolls, but great news for the rest of us.

I encourage you to read Andy's article for the background on the facts and his conclusions as they relate to the standards process, but I want to comment on the implications I see for open source. When I first read the GNU General Public License in 1985 (version 1), the part that made me least comfortable was the license’s grant of perpetual freedom as long as I did not foreclose another’s freedom when making a distribution to them. I had no problem sharing freedom…the problem was that I didn’t understand how a promise could be propagated and trusted to be upheld.

What I read in the FTC’s decision is that a good-faith promise made and accepted cannot be diluted or repudiated by passing it through a 3rd party agency. Of course this is what we would expect in a fair world, and one reason why some promises, like treaties between nations, need to be so intensively negotitated. And why when sincere promises are broken, the fallout usually extends far beyond the promise itself or the commercial compensation in question.

Though the decision was split, I take this as validation that one of the fundamental premises underlying the GPL is sound, and that’s great news for all of us, too.