CSIRO wifi: a hardware or a software patent?

CSIRO is an organisation that holds a patent on wifi. They’ve already sued twenty companies and have said that they want royalties from “the entire industry”. If this includes software developers, then we have a problem. Can anyone help analyse if their patent is a software patent or a hardware patent? Thanks in advance.

There are links at the end to get started, but first: Why is the distinction important?

Hardware manufacturers all have two things: a legal department and a pile of money in the bank. If they’re attacked, they can defend themselves. If they lose, they don’t have to close their project, they just add a new expense to their existing list of business costs. Hardware is always manfactured for money, so we can assume that adding a financial requirement to their distribution won’t radically ruin their work, it will just change the numbers.

Patent attacks among companies are an expected part of business. Patents do cause problems among hardware companies, but these can be fixed by initiatives such as the US Patent Reform Act. They can do their own lobbying on that.

Software developers are completely different because we can’t assume they have the legal or financial resources to defend themselves, or even to investigate the legitimacy of a patent attack. Secondly, software is not always developed for money. For some software, with great value to society, adding a financial requirement completely ruins the development process, or even makes the process impossible.

Tweaking the numbers (as the Patent Reform Act proposes) does nothing to fix the problems faced by software developers. For software developers, the only solution is to abolish software patents.

If CSIRO’s patent can only be used to attack hardware manufacturers, then there’s no social problem. If it can be used to attack all software developers, then they could become a pest. I would be very interested to read their patent and the existing court rulings, but I’m a little snowed under right now. Has anyone already taken a look? Know of any articles discussing this distinction? Anyone motivated to take a look now? Here are some links as starting points:

4 Comments

  • les says:

    The vast majority of the claims are clearly directed to hardware. There are, however, some method claims. But even the method claims recite things like transmission signal processing means in turn coupled to antenna means and therefore require the presence of hardware for there to be infringement.

    I suppose there is a small chance that software “contributes” to someones infringement. In all likelyhood, that software would be developed by or contracted for by hardware suppliers.

    61. A method for transmitting data in a confined multipath transmission environment at radio frequencies in excess of 10 GHz, said data being provided by an input data channel coupled to transmission signal processing means in turn coupled to antenna means, said method comprising the steps of:

    modulating said data, by modulation means of said transmission signal processing means, into a plurality of sub-channels comprised of a sequence of data symbols such that the period of a sub-channel symbol is longer than a predetermined period representative of the time delay of significant ones of non-direct transmission paths; and

    transmitting, by said antenna means, said sub-channel symbols at said radio frequencies in excess of 10 GHz.

    62. A method as claimed in claim 61, comprising the further step of providing data reliability enhancement to said data in advance of said modulation step.

    63. A method as claimed in claim 62, wherein said data reliability enhancement is Forward Error Correction.

    64. A method as claimed in claim 63, comprising the further step of interleaving blocks of said input data between the steps of providing data reliability enhancement monitoring and step of modulation.

    65. A method as claimed in claim 64, wherein said blocks of input data are bits.

    66. A method as claimed in claim 61, wherein said step of modulation is multi-level amplitude and/or phase modulation (mQAM).

    67. A method as claimed in claim 66, wherein said mQAM modulation is one of: multi-level amplitude phase shift keying (mASK), permutation modulation, binary phase shift keying (BPSK), multi-level phase shift keying (mPSK) and multi-level amplitude phase keying (mAPK).

    68. A method for transmitting data in a confined multipath transmission environment of radio frequencies, said data being provided by an input data channel coupled to transmission signal processing means in turn coupled to antenna means, said method comprising the steps of:

    applying data reliability enhancement to said data;

    interleaving blocks of said enhanced data;

    modulating said data, by modulation means of said transmission signal processing means, into a plurality of sub-channels comprised of a sequence of data symbols such that the period of a sub-channel symbol is longer than a predetermined period representative of significant ones of non-direct transmission paths; and

    transmitting, by said antenna means, said sub-channel symbols.

    69. A method as claimed in claim 68, wherein said data reliability enhancement is Forward Error Correction.

    70. A method as claimed in claim 69, wherein said blocks of input data are bits.

    71. A method as claimed in claim 68, wherein said steps of modulation is multi-level amplitude and/or phase modulation (mQAM).

    72. A method as claimed in claim 71, wherein said mQAM modulation is one of: multi-level amplitude phase shift keying (mASK), permutation modulation, binary phase shift keying (BPSK), multi-level phase shift keying (mPSK) and multi-level amplitude phase keying (mAPK).

    • Ciaran says:

      Thanks a lot for the analysis!

      I’m going to give it another read or two, but I think you’re right that software developers are *probably* safe from this.

      My only remaining doubt is whether a project like OpenWRT (which makes an operating system for network routers) could be threatened by claim #68.

      • Les says:

        Anything is possible. However, this seems like very very transport layer stuff. The interleaving and modulating steps of claim 68 seem very specific to me. Wifi must be based on some standard. If the standard calls for those specific steps, then everyone is on the hook. If it doesn’t, then it seems to me that no one is on the hook.

  • les says:

    The following is from the background section of the patent:

    –Accordingly, the need arises for a LAN to which such portable devices can be connected by means of a wireless or radio link.

    Such wireless LANs are known, however, hitherto they have been substantially restricted to low data transmission rates. In order to achieve widespread commercial acceptability, it is necessary to have a relatively high transmission rate and therefore transmit on a relatively high frequency, of the order of 1 GHz or higher. As will be explained hereafter, radio transmission at such high frequencies encounters a collection of unique problems.

    One wireless LAN which is commercially available is that sold by Motorola under the trade name ALTAIR. This system operates at approximately 18 GHz, however, the maximum data transmission rate is limited to approximately 3-6 Mbit/s. A useful review of this system and the problems of wireless reception at these frequencies and in “office” environments is contained in “Radio Propagation and Anti-multipath Techniques in the WIN Environment”, James E. Mitzlaff IEEE Network Magazine November 1991 pp. 21-26.

    This engineering designer concludes that the inadequate performance, and the large size, expense and power consumption of the hardware needed to adaptively equalize even a 10 Mbit/s data signal are such that the problems of multipath propagation cannot thereby be overcome in Wireless In-Building Network (WIN) systems. Similarly, spread spectrum techniques which might also be used to combat multipath problems consume too much bandwidth (300 MHz for 10 Mbits/s) to be effective. A data rate of 100 Mbit/s utilizing this technology would therefore consume 3 GHz of bandwidth.

    Instead, the solution adopted by Motorola and Mitzlaff is a directional antenna system with 6 beams for each antenna resulting in 36 possible transmission paths to be periodically checked by the system processor in order to locate the “best quality” path and “switch” the antennae accordingly. This procedure adds substantial bulk and cost to the system. This procedure is essentially the conversion of a multipath transmission problem into a single path transmission environment by the use of directional antennae. –

    So, anyone can use the older 6 beam technique and not worry about infringing this patent.

    Furthermore, as long as you don’t modulate the data such that the period of a sub-channel symbol is longer than a predetermined period representative of the time delay of significant ones of non-direct transmission paths, it looks to me like you won’t infringe either.