Much for all, or all for a few?

How'd we get to the point where manufacturers and end-users are getting sued for patent infringement for what they believed to be open technologies? (Gary Mintchell and Jim Montague have been following developments; see "News" in this issue.) In recent years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted patents that to many now seem obvious and overly pervasive.

04/01/2002


How'd we get to the point where manufacturers and end-users are getting sued for patent infringement for what they believed to be open technologies? (Gary Mintchell and Jim Montague have been following developments; see "News" in this issue.)

In recent years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted patents that to many now seem obvious and overly pervasive. Some say this occurred because patent examiners haven't kept pace with rapidly changing technologies, then granted patents that were too generally stated, too inclusive, and too open to misinterpretation. Courts doing the enforcing are often lacking in technological knowledge.

Litigation

For instance, Schneider Electric held a 16-year-old patent on linking a PLC to a spreadsheet, and eventually auctioned it to Solaia Technology LLC, which is seeking to secure licensing fees or litigate against several customers of OPC members that use this PLC-spreadsheet linking method.

Separately, we've reported that Schneider Electric, more than a year ago, has sued Opto 22 for infringement of the patent to put a web server in a controller.

Ideally, OPC Foundation should be the entity to hold "open systems"-related patents, allowing an open manufacturing environment, for the good of all, globally. Indeed, the OPC Foundation has stated that it believes Solaia's lawsuits are without merit. In an open environment, central organizations can provide cooperative management required to establish and evolve applicable standards. These standards allow creation of open systems that many can use, allowing automation and control vendors to use time and resources adding value, rather than maintaining proprietary infrastructures that require a boatload of code (drivers) to allow communications among them.

So what happens from here? Solaia and Schneider Electric could lose their patent suits; major industry interests could pay some subset of the total to Solaia in a settlement; or many could pay licensing fees. Or Solaia and Schneider Electric could drop the suits and donate some patents to OPC Foundation. Or some combination.

End-users, vendors, and system integrators have proceeded based on the understanding that OPC has held the patents in question or that the concepts involved were not covered by patents. My opinion is that the technologies we've heard discussed seem so widely used that paying licensing fees could severely impact industry's real movement toward "open." Does that best serve manufacturing? Not in my opinion. Is it legal? That's for the parties involved, attorneys, and the courts to work through.

More pie for all

Network organizations hold enough patents to allow use of the protocols in an open way. Manufacturers make products, system integrators apply them; end-users buy them. Likewise, OPC Foundation should hold (or should have been given) appropriate patents to permit widespread use of open standards, allowing creation of more pie for all, not more arguments and litigation about the size of each proprietary slice.


Author Information

Mark T. Hoske, Editor-in-Chief mhoske@cahners.com




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