Experts question Microsoft's Caller ID patents

The issues could hinder the technology's widespread adoption

Just a week after Microsoft Corp.'s Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled his company's plan for securing e-mail communications, leading e-mail authorities, legal experts and at least one Internet service provider (ISP) are expressing concerns about the e-mail sender authentication plan, known as Caller ID.

Some experts agreed that the technology is promising. However, Microsoft's claim that it owns patents around Caller ID and its decision to license the technology to third parties, rather than submit it to an Internet standards body, have riled e-mail experts and domain owners, some of whom said they fear a power grab by the company and are wary of signing on to the new system.

Caller ID allows Internet domain owners to publish the IP address of their outgoing e-mail servers in an XML format e-mail "policy" in the Domain Name System record for their domain. E-mail servers can query the DNS record and match the source IP address of incoming e-mail messages to the address of the approved sending servers, Microsoft said. The goal is to reduce spam for end users.

Speaking last week at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, Gates said Microsoft hopes to have Caller ID in place by the third quarter, provided it can reach "the right agreements" with ISPs and e-mail providers. He didn't elaborate on what those agreements might involve but said Microsoft had some patents related to "the fundamentals" of Caller ID, which is "royalty-free, available for everyone to use," according to a transcript of his RSA speech.

Microsoft published a technical specification for Caller ID on its Web site, along with an "implementation license" for organizations that want to develop and implement software conforming to the specification.

At least one e-mail expert who has studied the agreement said it could be an obstacle to Caller ID's widespread adoption. "Given the license they're offering, it's clearly a problem," said John Levine of the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) Anti-Spam Research Group.

Levine said he is concerned because Microsoft hasn't said what technology its patents cover. He also took issue with its assertion in the license agreement that Caller ID licenses can't be transferred from one party to another, leaving the job of assigning licenses to Microsoft.

"The way the license is written, you can't read [Microsoft's] intentions," he said. "They could stop giving out [Caller ID] licenses at any time, or suddenly say that Caller ID is bundled with Windows."

Microsoft's agreement grants licensees a fully paid, royalty-free license to "make, use, sell, offer to sell, import and otherwise distribute" licensed implementations of the company's Caller ID patents. The company won't seek royalty payments for use of the patents now or in the future, according to a statement by George Webb, business manager for Microsoft's Antispam Technology and Strategy Group.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about what its Caller ID patent claims cover. The technology is new, and its patent applications are still pending, according to an e-mail statement from David Kaefer of Microsoft's Intellectual Property and Licensing Group.

However, the company said its Caller ID license agreement isn't limited to any single patent, but covers rights to any Microsoft patent or patent application involved in implementing the Caller ID specification, Kaefer said.

"Microsoft wants to do more than merely give [Caller ID] away, they also want to make sure nobody else can profit from it," said Steve Frank, a partner in the patent and intellectual property group at the law firm Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault LLP in Boston.

That shouldn't be surprising, considering the time and money it has invested in designing the new architecture. "Since they're dedicating it to the public free of charge, [Microsoft] doesn't want to be the patsy who builds a foundation just so other people can come along and erect a building on it, then sell the building," he said.

To protect its investment, Microsoft reserves the right to incorporate other groups' improvements to Caller ID back into the specification free of charge, using a so-called "reciprocal license," Frank said.

Such a process will encourage all parties involved to allow the Caller ID technology to develop and improve without being hindered by license restrictions or royalty schemes, Kaefer and Frank said.

Although Microsoft's intentions may be benign, the company's reliance on individual license agreements with domain owners is unconventional, especially if the intention is to encourage broad Internet adoption of Caller ID, Frank said. "The traditional way to do this is not through reciprocal licensing but through a standards body that has its own rules for how people can develop the initial technology and exploit improvements," he said.

Groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., the IETF and the World Wide Web Consortium have rules for adopting and protecting another company or group's intellectual property as part of a technical standard and are well situated to take over and promulgate the Caller ID specifications, he said.

"Those groups have tremendous industry support and can facilitate adoption and get things done on an efficient basis," he said.

In shunning standards organizations, Microsoft is acting contrary to a "standard Internet ethos" that technical standards should be free of legal entanglements, said Robert Sanders, chief architect at Atlanta-based ISP EarthLink Inc.

"It's clear that standards that are unencumbered are the most successful on the Internet, and I don't think it's any different here. It's in everybody's best interest to make [Caller ID] easy to implement legally and technically," he said.

So far, Microsoft has given no indication as to whether it will consider turning Caller ID over to a standards body, Levine said. As it stands, the company's licensing model for Caller ID doesn't conform to any of the IETF's policies for handling patents, he said.

Microsoft can still make good on its Caller ID technology, but it must be clearer about its intentions to make the technology permanently open and royalty-free, Levine said. "If they want to offer free, permanent licenses for Caller ID, that's great, but could you please make your license say that?" Levine said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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