A Tale of Two Layers: Patents, Standardization, and the Internet

43 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2016 Last revised: 5 Oct 2016

See all articles by Jorge L. Contreras

Jorge L. Contreras

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law

Date Written: August 30, 2016


In recent years, high-profile lawsuits involving standards-essential patents (SEPs) have made headlines in the United States, Europe, and Asia, leading to a heated public debate regarding the role and impact of patents covering key interoperability standards. Enforcement agencies around the world have investigated and prosecuted alleged violations of competition law and private licensing commitments in connection with SEPs. Yet, while the debate has focused broadly on standardization and patents in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, commentators have paid little attention to differences among technology layers within ICT.

This Article uses both existing and new empirical data to show that patent filing and assertion activity is substantially lower for Internet-related standards than for standards relating to telecommunications and other computing technologies. It analyzes historical and social factors that may have contributed to this divergence focusing on the two principal Internet standards bodies: the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It counters the dominant narrative that standards and SEPs are necessarily fraught with litigation and thereby necessitate radical systemic change. Instead, it shows that standards policies that de-emphasize patent monetization have led to lower levels of disputes and litigation. It concludes by placing recent discussions of patenting and standards within the broader context of openness in network technologies and urges both industry participants and policy makers to look to the success of Internet standardization in a patent-light environment when considering the adoption of new rules and policies.

Keywords: Internet, standards, royalty-free, FRAND, IETF, W3C

JEL Classification: K00, K12, L63, L86, L96, O34

Suggested Citation

Contreras, Jorge L., A Tale of Two Layers: Patents, Standardization, and the Internet (August 30, 2016). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, 2016, University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 177, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2832538

Jorge L. Contreras (Contact Author)

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States

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