Thursday, May 12, 2022

Apple and other WiFi implementers pressuring IEEE not to abandon its 2015 patent policy--but serious impact of negative Letters of Assurance can't be denied

Early last week, largely the same Apple-led crowd that is behind the "Save Our Standards" campaign (whose deceptive lobbying I've recently called out) sent a letter to Sophia Muirhead, the General Counsel of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). I'm in possession of that six-page PDF, which is dated May 3 and entitled Industry and Public Interest Support for Maintaining 2015 IEEE-SA Bylaw Updates. It's a pressure group effort ahead of a (fairly confidential) meeting of the IEEE-SA's Standards Board; the letter was allegedly authored by outside counsel for Apple; and from what I heard, it's more or less unprecedented for industry players to lobby the IEEE in that fashion.

It looks like some folks are panicking, though a little over a year ago they had reason to celebrate: the Biden DOJ silently downgraded a letter that the Trump DOJ (specifically, then-Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim) had sent to IEEE, urging it to undo significant parts of its 2015 policy change favoring implementers. As I noted at the end of the post I just linked to, the wrangling over IEEE's standard-essential patent (SEP) policy was sure to continue. Mr. Delrahim is now a Latham & Watkins partner (oddly, a firm frequently used by Apple), so he's no longer in a position to push IEEE in the direction he outlined while in public office. But IEEE still has a problem on its hands that no one with an interest in a functioning standard-setting system can responsibly ignore or convincingly explain away.

We'd be having a totally different conversation now if the following sentence from the first paragraph of Apple et al.'s letter were true:

"The IEEE-SA’s Patent Policy is and remains the model for standard setting organization (SSO) IPR policies, particularly following the 2015 update to the patent policy."

The letter says "IEEE-SA distinguished itself positively" in 2015. Now, if SSOs like ETSI had gone in a similar direction, Apple et al. would be in a position to make that claim of IEEE's 2015 policy being and remaining "the model for [SSO] IPR policies." But the reality--certainly a sad one from the implementers' perspective--is that seven years on, IEEE is still an outlier among SSOs. That may simply be due to the fact that other SSOs are more consensus-driven than IEEE, where a majority can just brush aside objections no matter their merit.

Neither does the last sentence of the first paragraph withstand scrutiny once one looks at the broader picture:

"By almost any measure, standardization work at IEEE has thrived in the wake of these updates."

Via a footnote, that sentence refers to a 2018 IPlytics report (PDF) that says "contributions to IEEE standards and technical work within IEEE working groups have only increased since the updated patent policy was approved." But as standards grow more complex, the number of contributions are on the rise--and more than anything, that conclusion reflects a disconnect:

A number of major wireless SEP holders and innovators (including, but not necessarily limited to, Ericsson, GE, Huawei (notably, a large-scale WiFi implementer as well), InterDigital, LG, Nokia, Orange, Panasonic, and Qualcomm (in alphabetical order)) have declined to provide Letters of Assurance ("LOAs") that would force them to adhere to the IEEE's 2015 policy. Some if not all of them clarified that they remained willing to abide by the prior policy (which was more similar to what is still found in the cellular standards space). But a refusal to be bound by the new policy is deemed a "negative LOA," regardless of a contributor's stance on a superseded version of that policy.

The disconnect here is that there wasn't a major disruption on the technical side (though Professor Ron Katznelson, a member and past Chair of the IEEE's U.S. IP committee, did identify some negative impact in his paper The IEEE controversial policy on Standard Essential Patents -- the empirical record since adoption) despite those negative LOAs. That approach is not sustainable. Sooner or later, an SSO runs into a serious problem if a significant part of all technical contributions isn't subject to positive LOAs.

We're talking about a legal issue, a licensing problem--not just a political one that may simply be solved by an Administration overriding its predecessor's policies.

Unlike in politics, where a majority vote is often the answer, that won't work here either. Apple et al.'s letter stresses that there are far more companies favoring implementer-friendly policies than a proposal to revert to the previous one. That means nothing. Seriously, there are more people out there buying bread than owning or working at bakeries, yet customers can't just set the terms on which they want the supply side of the market to do business with them. The fact that there are so many implementers makes successful standards valuable. It doesn't devalue them. And even if a vast majority of SEP holders preferred a policy (typically because they are net licensees), in the end implementers need a license to all the SEPs, not just some or most of them.

WiFi 6 is the first generation of IEEE 802.11 to have been affected by negative LOAs. WiFi 7, which is now in the works, will be the first one to have been developed with some companies having submitted negative LOAs at the outset.

Those negative LOAs--coupled with the continuation of standards development as if nothing had changed--are a ticking time bomb. Arguably, it has detonated in some places already. IEEE ran into problems with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) finding itself unable to approve as national U.S. standards those IEEE standards that were clearly impacted by negative LOAs. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has similar problems according to a JDSupra article and a LinkedIn article (both by the same author, David Cohen)). It's not a question of whether those organizations like IEEE's patent policy: it's all about the fact that there are negative LOAs in place, normally a no-go in standard-setting, for good reason.

The current situation is a mess. Contrary to what Apple et al.'s letter claims (asking this rhetorical question: "Why would IEEE-SA want to return to a world in which the cost of implementing IEEE-SA standards like 802.11 was uncertain, inevitably discouraging adoption?", negative LOAs are anything but a path to legal certainty. That is not a question of whether or not one would like to bring down SEP royalties. Apple et al.'s letter fails to present a solution as it only advocates perpetuating the problem. With Apple's annual litigation budget in the billions of dollars, that may be workable. For the technology industry at large it is not.

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