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IEC field bus standard `infringes patents`

01 April, 2000

IEC field bus standard `infringes patents`

A new row has erupted in the field bus community after allegations by the Swiss controls supplier Endress+Hauser, that essential parts of the recently agreed global field bus standard IEC 61158 are protected by patents or patent claims by "certain companies".

Endress+Hauser says that its patent engineers discovered the alleged infringements only after the recent vote by members of the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) to accept a compromise multi-bus document as the global field bus standard.

The company tried to block the subsequent ratification by the European standards body Cenelec of an amendment to the European field bus standard EN 50170 to bring it in line with the IEC standard, but the ratification went ahead.

Endress+Hauser`s objection relates to documents covering the Foundation Fieldbus (FF) section of the IEC and Cenelec standards - which now comprise eight incompatible standards including FF, Profibus, WorldFIP and others. It refers, in particular, to at least one patent filed by Fisher Rosemount.

The Swiss company suggests that anyone applying this part of the standard "runs the risk of infringing a patent and being subjected to claims for damages". It has written to the IEC and Cenelec requesting that any proprietary rights established though patents be listed in the standards and that the owners of the patents must grant licences to users in accordance with IEC and Cenelec rules.

"We regret very much that the endeavours of creating a uniform fieldbus standard which have been going on for years are now faltering," says E+H`s chief technical officer, Diether Schaudel. "But, in the interests of our customers around the globe, we cannot permit that individual companies obtain monopolies protected by patents with the Trojan horse of an international standard."

The Fieldbus Foundation has dismissed the E+H allegations as "unfounded". FF president John Pittman points out that Foundation Fieldbus products are being offered and developed by many different suppliers in North America, Europe and Japan.

"It is inconceivable that these leading companies - each with its own vigilant legal and patent counsel - would be engaging in such an extensive and costly process if they believed their market entry was hindered by patent obstacles," Pittman declares.

He adds that where an FF member holds a patent affecting other companies implementing the Foundation specifications, it has offered either a royalty-free licence to all FF members, or a "commercially reasonable and non-discriminatory" licence to all developers seeking to implement the standard.

"We simply know of no situation in which a member company`s patents would serve as an overt, or covert, hindrance to widespread commercial adoption and implementation of the Foundation standard by any company anywhere in the world," Pittman adds.

"The IEC or Cenelec review and voting process took years to reach a successful conclusion. During that time there was ample time for these concerns to be brought forward and addressed."

In Cenelec`s first official response to the E+H allegation, the standards body has written to the company saying that its amended standard "would be withdrawn immediately" if it was found not to comply with a Cenelec memorandum on intellectual property rights.

E+H regards this response as "unsatisfactory … because it fails to create legal security for customers, and does not touch the factual issues involved". It has therefore despatched a second letter saying that Cenelec`s decisions "seem to indicate to us that the Technical Board either has not understood the issue correctly or has not done justice to its own tasks stipulated in its own provisions". E+H says that it will seek support from national standards committees. Endress+Hauser has also sent a message to FF president John Pittman urging the Foundation to persuade its members to provide the IEC and Cenelec with a list of all patents and patent applications that may affect the implementation of field bus technology.

In the message, E+H says that, like other companies, it is "investing significantly" in the development of field bus technologies. "Endress+Hauser is not willing to allow any company … to limit our success, and the success of other companies, by mixing the monopolistic effect of patents with the public support of an international field bus standard".

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