Clearing the Air Over MaidSafe’s Patent Request: An Interview with COO Nick Lambert
A recent article published on Cointelegraph, entitled MaidSafe Founder Seeks Monopoly on ‘Distributed Network System,’ caused some unintended controversy.
“Our connection to Bitcoin is that we share the community’s passion for decentralization and its ability to re-address the balance of power.”
—MaidSafe COO Nick Lambert
A recent article published on Cointelegraph, entitled MaidSafe Founder Seeks Monopoly on ‘Distributed Network System,’ caused some unintended controversy. We feel it is our duty to provide readers with all available information, which is why we got in touch with MaidSafe COO Nick Lambert.
David Irvine, founder and lead developer of MaidSafe, addressed the issue personally through several comments on the article itself, and in a live World Crypto Network interview that included Susanne Tarkowski of Bitnation:
Irvine acknowledges in the interview the fact that patents are often used in malicious ways that stifle innovation, but he attempts to explain how MaidSafe’s filings are different. Their primary goal is to open innovation and allow technologies that build on top of, or around, MaidSafe to have basic protections, and hence all MaidSafe’s filings are ‘defensive.’
Because there are very specific intricacies that allow for such a situation to benefit the crypto world, it should be understandable why many in this community despise the very nature of IP, patent and copyright laws. Many people who have supported projects such as MaidSafe realized their dreams without the need for any government approval, as the newness of Bitcoin spread across the globe. Tarkowski takes this anti-patent position in the WCN interview.
Toward the end of the interview, they give an example to explain patent laws to someone who is not familiar with them: If someone invents the wheel and then others start patenting inventions that use the wheel, such as a car or a bike, then no one else can make cars or bikes. But if the inventor of the wheel gets an umbrella patent on it, then anyone can build on top of it and remain free to innovate without fear.
We reached out to Lambert for more details on the company’s patent strategy.
Cointelegraph: In order to save some of our readers the trouble of reading additional articles about MaidSafe, would you mind providing a short overview, along with its connection to the cryptocurrency and Bitcoin space?
Nick Lambert: MaidSafe has created and is implementing a decentralized data and communications network—the SAFE (Secure Access For Everyone) Network—that has the potential to decentralize all web services, replacing today’s centralized data centers and servers with the spare computing resources of the network’s users.
Our connection to Bitcoin is that we share the community’s passion for decentralization and its ability to re-address the balance of power, moving control away from large corporates and governments and back into the hands of everyday users. We also have a cryptocurrency (Safecoin) at the heart of the network.
CT: This question might be unfair, but if you can, please explain the basic differences between types of patent filings. The confusion seems to be arising from the misunderstanding between the owners of the patent, such as a person or corporation, versus a charity. And also from the difference between patents on inventions or applications versus a General Public License (in this case GPLv3).
NL: The position here is pretty simple. David (Irvine) is the inventor of all our patents, with all patents owned by (or currently being transferred to) the MaidSafe Foundation, a charitable not-for-profit organization set up to foster education and innovation.
MaidSafe has released all its code (which the patents cover) under the open-source General Public License (GPL), version 3 code, which we openly encourage anyone and everyone to fork. This license contains a clause, number 11, that covers patents. Part of this clause states:
“Each contributor grants you a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free patent license under the contributor's essential patent claims, to make, use, sell, offer for sale, import and otherwise run, modify and propagate the contents of its contributor version.”
This clause stops the MaidSafe Foundation from legally challenging and enforcing a patent against a person or company using the SAFE Network.
CT: Another issue that was at the heart of the outrage is the notion of trust. MaidSafe, and especially Irvine, are very well liked in the community due to their openness, and the supporter’s reactions prove that. However, throughout the interview it seemed like the MaidSafe Foundation is to be taken at their word that this is strictly for defensive purposes. Are there any legal provisions that will make sure of this 10 or 20 years down the road? The MaidSafe Foundation may no longer exist, but the patent will.
NL: The GPL grants a perpetual license and cannot be taken back. Some would correctly argue that MaidSafe could fork the code and change the license of that fork to a proprietary one, which of course we would never do. How can you expect to decentralize the Internet using proprietary software? But this would not change the license of the original code—code that we are actively helping and encouraging others to maintain and develop without us. (See SAFE Pods.)
We have also looked at patent pledges and patent aggregators as alternative ways of protecting the community and ourselves. We have spoken with CODA (Consortium of Decentralized Applications) and the Crypto Defense League, and looked at the Google Patent Pledge and the Defensive Patent License, but we haven’t found anything that we think will work yet. However, hopefully our intent here is clear.
CT: We hope you understand the view that many in this community have against government interference in the free market, and hence the lumping of all IP, copyright and patent law into one evil bucket. Do you think this incident is a net positive for MaidSafe and the cryptocurrency space in general?
NL: We understand the view and it is one that we share. The patent system as it stands stifles innovation and is manipulated by large companies and patent trolls to generate revenue, generally to everyone else’s detriment.
Is not for me to say whether this will be positive for MaidSafe. That is for others to decide, and I guess time will tell. My hope is that this exposure and ongoing debate will help educate people more about IP law, and I think that is a good thing for the cryptocurrency community.
“The existing patent system is broken in so many ways, and an alternative is clearly required, but we cannot ignore that it exists.”
CT: What do you think is the optimal way people should bring new technology to the world as it regards to the state? Do you admire Satoshi in doing what he did in staying anonymous?
NL: I understand why Satoshi remained anonymous. He/she/they clearly understood the implications of what they were doing and the advantage of anonymity, and that is one way of bringing new tech into the world. I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution here, and people need to decide how they are going to do it based on their personal situation, outlook and the type of technology they are building.
CT: Do you have anything else to add?
NL: The existing patent system is broken in so many ways, and an alternative is clearly required, but we cannot ignore that it exists. Shouting our disagreement from the sidelines won’t do it. I personally dislike some tax laws, but I cannot ignore them. Not protecting MaidSafe, the network and the companies that will develop on it, and the people using it, represents a significant risk. Not protecting these stakeholders leaves us all at the mercy of patent trolls and large corporates who have proven time and again that they value money above all else.
As we have seen with Bitcoin, changing the world creates enemies and we would rather not take a knife to a gunfight.