ENS developers urge Unstoppable Domains to drop patents or face lawsuit

The founder and lead developer of Ethereum Name Service (ENS), Nick Johnson, is urging blockchain domains company Unstoppable Domains to drop a recently awarded patent or face a lawsuit, according to an open letter shared on X (formerly Twitter). 

In January, Unstoppable Domains was granted its first patent, US11558344, which claims that Braden River Pezeshki, Matthew Everett Gould and Bogdan Gusiev are the inventors of a technology that uses blockchain technology to determine domains. The patent request was filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2021.

According to Johnson, the patent is “based entirely on innovations that ENS developed and contains no novel innovations of its own.” The ENS documentation stipulates:

“The Ethereum Name Service (ENS) is a distributed, open, and extensible naming system based on the Ethereum blockchain. ENS’s job is to map human-readable names like ‘alice. eth’ to machine-readable identifiers such as Ethereum addresses, other cryptocurrency addresses, content hashes, and metadata.”

In the open letter, Johnson claims that all the ENS work is under open-source licenses, with all standards publicly available for implementation. According to him, continued attempts to contact Unstoppable Domains about the issue have failed in recent months.

Screenshot of patent granted to Unstoppable Domains on Jan. 17, 2023. Source: USPTO

“UD has subsequently issued a press release ‘pledging’ its first patent to the Web3 Domain Alliance, an industry group founded and run by Unstoppable Domains. We appreciate the sentiment behind this, but regrettably, press releases are not legally binding,” Johnson noted in the thread.

“We are thus requesting that Unstoppable Domains put legal weight behind its PR commitment, with an unconditional and irrevocable patent pledge.”

The ENS Labs is “ready to challenge this patent, which we believe is entirely derivative of our own inventions; a position we are able and willing to demonstrate,” Johnson warned.

One of the alleged inventors from Unstoppable Domains, Matthew Gould, responded in the thread, extending an open invitation to join the Web3 Domain Alliance, the blockchain domain registry organization allegedly pledged with the patent. Gould also argued:

“I think your proposed solution doesn’t take into account the fact that we want there to be multiple naming systems – not just ENS – and the only way to ensure that future is to have a place where everyone (not just UD and ENS) collaborate.”

The thread caught the attention of the crypto community. Bob Summerwill, executive director of the Ethereum Classic Cooperative (ETC Cooperative), noted that requiring organizations to join the Web3 Domain Alliance for rights over the technology is also a direct attack on the open-source ethos.

“Also, Matt, this prior pledge is not the same as we are talking about, because legal entities need to ‘join the club’ to benefit from the patent pledge. You are retaining the right to patent attack anybody who does not comply and join your alliance.”

In a written response to Cointelegraph, Unstoppable Domains CEO Matthew Gould clarified: “Our filing of 18 patent applications, including the ‘344 patent for ‘Resolving Blockchain Domains’, are strategic moves to protect our freedom to operate and defend against potential encroachments by large Web2 domain registries.”

“Contrary to ENS’s assertions, our pursuit of patent protection is in line with standard practices in the Web3 sector, where numerous companies, including Coinbase and Consensys, have filed for patents,” he said, adding:

“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 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 4 years now. This is not something any other naming system did at that time.”

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Update (Nov. 21, 2023, 15:15 UTC): This article has been updated to include a written response from Unstoppable Domains CEO Matthew Gould.