Microsoft Claims IP Rights to Major Internet Protocols, Engineer Says

Jeff Berg
REDMOND, Wash. — Microsoft appears to be claiming intellectual property rights to a number of the Internet’s most fundamental communication protocols, according to one senior networking engineer.

In a document sent to the members of the Internet Engineering Task Force’s Internet Architecture Board, Larry J. Blunk, a senior engineer for networking research and development at Merit Network Inc., expressed concerns about claims made in the Microsoft’s Royalty Free Protocol License Agreement.

Released in April, the agreement lists about 130 internet protocols, including AppleTalk, TCP/IP v4 and v6, DNS and HTTP, that may be licensed for implementation.

“It is my concern that by merely suggesting they may hold applicable rights to these protocols, Microsoft is injecting a significant amount of unwarranted uncertainty and doubt regarding non-Microsoft implementations of these protocols,” said Blunk.

Some of the protocols contained in the list, including IEEE 802.1x, TCP/IP v4 and DNS, operate on the lowest layers of the Internet architecture and were created long ago to run the serve the most basic of functions required on the Internet.

“The fact that a significant number of protocols date from the early 1980’s, a time during which Microsoft had little patent activity, suggests that there is no reason to suspect that Microsoft has any parent rights to these early protocols,” said Blunk.

Microsoft, though, says that the company is not trying to claim it owns any type of rights to the patents mentioned in its RFPLA.

“Just because a protocol appears on the list does not mean that Microsoft is the owner or sole owner of rights in that protocol or its documentation,” reads a response at the Microsoft website.

“The list of protocols under this license includes protocols […] that Microsoft has implemented in Windows client operating systems to interoperate with Windows server operating systems,” Microsoft said. “What the royalty-free license does is ensure that a license is available from Microsoft under whatever rights it may have.”

Blunk’s announcement was met with heated debate among the networking engineers on the Internet over the weekend.

“This would be like my company, whose products use XML parsers, licensing the XML standard to our users,” wrote poster “Radtea” on Slashdot.com. “It would be bizarre on the face of it.”

“The story is not about Microsoft-bashing. IT is about a very strange license from a very powerful company,” Radtea continued.

Some intellectual property attorneys see problems with the agreement, though, suggesting that anyone who agrees to it may be giving up rights in return for nothing.

“By signing the agreement as it presently stands, one might be agreeing to certain things gratuitously, meaning simply that the licensee agrees to give Microsoft continuing control over how the protocols are used,” Glenn Paterson, a shareholder with Sacramento-based McDonough Holland & Allen, told eWeek.

“Basically, it prohibits researchers from making enhancements designed to improve interoperative performance,” Patterson said. “The agreement also allows Microsoft to terminate the licensee on 30 days’ notice and subjects the licensee to the jurisdiction of Washington state courts.”

A spokesperson from Microsoft said that a miscommunication caused the concerns, however.

“Microsoft in aware of the letter to the IAB and is working on a response to the concerns raised by the letter author and on providing clarify about our participating in standards-setting activities,” Microsoft spokesperson Mark Martin told eWeek. “In the end, we believe this is simply a misunderstanding which we are working hard to clarify.”