To fulfill its commitment to open source and to a defensive patent strategy, Blockchain Commons has joined COPA, the Cryptocurrency Open Patent Alliance.
COPA is a non-profit community that was formed by Square out of concern that misguided and offensive use of patents can stifle innovation, and that companies not focused on patent creation themselves would be unable to defend themselves from aggressive (often non-practicing) patent holders. Members of COPA pledge not to use their patents offensively and instead pool their crypto-patents to form a shared patent library.
Blockchain Commons was resolute in joining COPA because it addresses problems and resolves frustrations that Commons Founder Christopher Allen has long observed with the American patent system.
The issues with crypto patents date back to the early days of the cryptography industry, when companies were unable to engage in public-key cryptography without an RSA patent license, which was expensive and difficult to obtain. RSA was a practicing owner of its patents, and it did promise FRAND (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) licenses, but these licenses were still too expensive for open-source projects. In order to support the SSL standard, as well as the TLS standard that he was then coauthoring, Allen created the RSAREF license, which sublicensed RSA’s patents in a way that met FRAND standards, and which was royalty-free for the first $50,000 — enabling open-source projects, which tended to be revenue-free. This resulted in RSAREF licensees like PGP and Red Hat being able to innovate with public-key cryptography.
Allen has also seen the issue of patents from the other side. When he worked at Certicom, he oversaw a large library of patents and was able to advance the idea of ethical patent usage: he convinced the executive team at Certicom to adopt an internal policy to offer FRAND licenses for the patents they were actively practicing and to use their other patents only for defensive purposes.
However, even a company like Certicom was unable to avoid all of the problems with patents, particularly those caused by non-practicing patent owners. Though Allen was interested in advancing digital microcurrencies at Certicom, he was stifled by patents for Merkle trees and Schnorr signatures. Certicom’s cryptocurrency work was stalled, and new innovations in the field, such as Bitcoin, only appeared after the patents expired, the last in 2008.
Fortunately, the entire industry is moving toward an understanding of the problems caused by the patent system. At Blockstream, Allen was proud to see the company take a very progressive path when they made a public defensive patent pledge for their entire patent portfolio, which also ensured continuity in the case of bankruptcy. The next step would have been creating a patent pool among companies, but unfortunately Allen was stymied at the time by large companies being unwilling to join such a pool.
Allen’s commitment to an open and defensive patent policy has continued at Blockchain Commons, and so he’s delighted that Square has used its prominent position in the industry to spearhead the COPA initiative, ensuring continued innovation in the blockchain, Bitcoin, and cryptocurrency fields, without the fear of frivolous patent lawsuits. This is why Blockchain Commons joined COPA as an early adopter.