Friday, March 25, 2005

IS THE PRESS GETTING ANTI-SOFTWARE-PATENT-HAPPY? Alas, another spat has broken out between Microsoft and the Public Patent Foundation/the Software Freedom Law Center. The brouhaha broke Tuesday, after it was reported that Microsoft's patent USP 6,101,499, filed in 1998 and issued in 2000, has "more than a passing similarity" to IPv6, one of the backbones of the Internet.

What is IPv6 you may ask? Well, IPv6 is short for "Internet Protocol Version 6". IPv6 is the "next generation" protocol designed by the IETF to replace the current version Internet Protocol, IP Version 4 ("IPv4"). Most of today's internet uses IPv4, which is now nearly twenty years old. IPv4 has been remarkably resilient in spite of its age, but it is beginning to have problems. Most importantly, there is a growing shortage of IPv4 addresses, which are needed by all new machines added to the Internet.

IPv6 fixes a number of problems in IPv4, such as the limited number of available IPv4 addresses. It also adds many improvements to IPv4 in areas such as routing and network autoconfiguration. IPv6 is expected to gradually replace IPv4, with the two coexisting for a number of years during a transition period.

IPv6 includes a transition mechanism which is designed to allow users to adopt and deploy IPv6 in a highly diffuse fashion and to provide direct interoperability between IPv4 and IPv6 hosts. The transition to a new version of the Internet Protocol is designed to be incremental, with few or no critical interdependencies. The IPv6 transition allows the users to upgrade their hosts to IPv6, and the network operators to deploy IPv6 in routers, with very little coordination between the two.

- Now, getting back to the Microsoft patent. Claim 1 recites:

1. In a host that has been connected to a network that does not have an IP address server and is not connected with any network having an IP address server, a method for automatically generating an IP address for the host, without another component of the network being required to transmit, to the host over the network, an IP address of said other component, the method comprising the steps of:

without the host having received over the network any IP address of another component of the network, selecting a valid network identifying value as a network identifying portion of the IP address for the host;

without the host having received over the network said any IP address of another component of the network, generating a host identifying portion of the IP address for the host based on information available to the host;

and testing the generated IP address for the host for conflicting usage by another host on the network and determining that no conflicting usage of the generated IP address exists.

In other words, the invention automatically generate an IP address for a host without manual intervention or without resort to an IP address server, and allows hosts to connect to an IP network in a relatively simple fashion. In general, the system determines the absence of a network IP address server, such as a DHCP server, automatically generates an IP address, tests the IP address to determine uniqueness, and periodically determines if an IP address server subsequently becomes available on the IP network. Accordingly, the method may be used in a network that has or does not have an IP address server.

So how does this relate to IPv6? Nobody knows yet. But that hasn't stopped the press from reporting this development as some massive "patent grab" by Microsoft to crush its smaller competitors (e.g., here, here, here, and here for starters). Certainly one can impart features of the claim to the IPv6 standard, but no one has identified the particular protocols that are threatened by the patent.

In fact, some of the Slashdot chatter raises questions whether the patent is relevant to IPv6 at all:

(comment 1) This is a patent on link-local address autoconfiguration for IPv4 (not as the article misleadingly says IPv6). Many Linux, Mac OS and Windows machines use this feature, but none of them need it to use the IPv4 or IPv6 Internet, in fact it's a fallback for when Internet service is not available.

(comment 2) Now that bears pretty much zero similarity to IPv6, which is among others: expanding address space over IPv4 while being somewhat backwards compatible for a transition period, improved IP packet modularity for less overhead, new hierarchical infrastructure for improved routing support, built-in IPSec, improved quality-of-service (QoS) support, improved support for ad hoc networking, and improved support for extensibility . . . Can someone clarify the huge similarities here to me that makes this big news?

(comment 3) While this patent is not quite brilliant, it's not ipv6, this is a patent on the "automatic addressing" function in windows ME, 2k, xp, etc, where if your network card has link, but can't find a dhcp server the system auto-assigns an address from like a 169 or something subnet that MS owns.This patent has absolutely nothing to do with ipv6 further, I believe MS was the first to do anything like this, even now they are (unless maybe apple does it now too... but I don't think they do either). Anyway I've never seen the feature actually be useful, mostly it is an annoyance, but it's not ipv6

So why all the hubbub? Well, first and foremost, it's Microsoft. Second, it was well-known that Microsoft participated in the early IPv6 meetings, and at least some of the named inventors were in attendance (Rambus anyone?). Accordingly, there are legitimate questions being raised whether all of the prior art known by Microsoft was properly disclosed to the USPTO.

But it seems to me that this situation is being blown out of proportion. If anyone can enlighten me further on this, I would appreciate hearing from them.

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