‘We Are Prepared to Go to the Mat:’ ENS Founder on Patent Dispute With Unstoppable

4 views 2:35 pm 0 Comments November 21, 2023
The founder and lead developer of the Ethereum Name Service (ENS), which aims to simplify blockchain usage by providing human-readable domain names, said he’s “prepared to go to the mat” in an intellectual property dispute with rival Unstoppable Domains.

The comments, made by Nick Johnson in an interview with CoinDesk, come days after a spat between the companies broke out on X (formerly Twitter).

In an “open letter,” Johnson claimed that Unstoppable won a patent in January “based entirely on innovations that ENS developed” and that he now fears the rival company might press the advantage for its benefit. He said he’s now considering a challenge to the patent after behind-the-scenes discussions failed to resolve the matter.

ENS is a domain-name protocol that provides Ethereum users a name, like “Alice. eth,” instead of the long alphanumeric blockchain address associated with their crypto wallets. Unstoppable Domains does the same with various protocols.

Johnson says he’s simply trying to defend ENS’s work and the principle of having code be open-sourced rather than patented.

“I think we’ve been fairly clear that this is important to us,” Johnson told CoinDesk. “And honestly, it rankles a bit just on a personal level. Because this is mostly code and specs, I wrote.”

In the Nov. 16 exchange on X, Johnson referenced a commitment by Unstoppable – made via an industry organization called the Web3 Domain Alliance – that it would not assert patent claims under certain conditions. Johnson wrote that “press releases are not legally binding.”

He challenged Unstoppable to provide an “unconditional and irrevocable patent pledge” to “put legal weight” behind the “PR commitment.”

Unstoppable CEO Matthew Gould responded on X: “There are no forward guarantees that can be made that make sense given the changing landscape of the industry. IMO, the only solution is to increase collaboration and discussion.”

Gould told CoinDesk, “We refute the claim that we have stolen ENS’ intellectual property. Instead, we patented the technology we built and used ourselves for our system, which is distinct from the system ENS has built.”

The brouhaha gets at the heart of the blockchain industry’s originally grassroots ethos, where assumed deference to open-source code is mainly viewed as a driving principle behind software as a public good. Others in the industry have departed from the practice by patenting work and enforcing rights through the court system.

According to Johnson’s posts, he approached Unstoppable to resolve the differences but was unsuccessful.

On its website, the Web3 Domain Alliance says it’s a “member-led, member-driven organization dedicated to improving the technological and public policy environments for users of blockchain naming services.”

Unstoppable is listed as one of dozens of “partner” organizations, though ENS is noticeably missing.

“It’s difficult to know their intent, of course, but yeah, just based on the signals they’ve given, I think they intend to use this and other patents as a way of sort of leveraging their industry group as a de facto regulator,” Johnson said in the interview.

“Given the environment, we may have to reconsider that and adopt an open-patent license,” he said, pursuing defensive patents.

Johnson said he hopes that the internet infrastructure of the future will be open and a “not-for-profit public good, rather than being run by a for-profit company.”

In the statement to CoinDesk, Unstoppable’s Gould said that “the patent is directly related to the technology we deployed for our original “.crypto” registry on Ethereum and is distinct to our use, including many inventions that make it easier for a centralized company like ours to run a domain registry, for example, gasless transactions by paying for gas for users which we have offered for four years now. This is not something any other naming system did at that time.”

As for the Web3 Domain Alliance, Gould said that they “extended a Patent Non-Assertion pledge to Web3 Domain Alliance members, including ENS, demonstrating our commitment to collaborative and fair development in the domain space.”

“The goal of the Web3 Domain Alliance is to help the Web3 domain industry, avoid collisions, and develop standards,” Gould said. “The demand by ENS for us to open-source all of our patents overlooks the fact that we have already extended a cooperative hand through our non-assertion pledge, which ENS has yet to accept.”


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