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W3C Extends Comment Period on Patent Policy

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tuesday chose to extend until Oct. 11 the public review period on a proposal that has unleashed a firestorm of controversy.

The W3C's Patent Policy Framework draft was released for public comment on Aug. 16, but attracted little attention at that time. The draft included a proposal that the W3C support reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) licensing, which would allow companies to claim patent rights and collect royalties on standards authorized by the W3C.

On Sept. 30 -- the W3C's deadline for public comment -- a commentary on InternetNews.com sister site Linux Today called developer attention to the proposal and a flood of comments and criticism followed.

"This is a substantial shift in the philosophical direction of the W3C and should be of extreme concern to anyone who values being able to implement W3C standards in a royalty-free manner," Adam Warner said in his commentary. "In particular this has profound implications for the support and implementation of future W3C standards by the free software community. It is likely to extinguish free software development and deployment in the areas where the payment of royalties is required."

RAND is a licensing model that would allow for non-royalty-free standards to become W3C sanctioned recommendations. According to the W3C, "RAND means that someone may or may not need to pay a fee, and that it is at the discretion of the license holder."

The proposal requires that any company that imposes licensing restrictions must impose those restrictions uniformly.

"It appears to follow that non-commercial organizations cannot be given any preferential treatment over commercial organizations since that would be discriminatory licensing," Warner said.

The "sleeper" nature of RAND licensing is also a cause for concern, Warner said.

"Presently the SVG specification is free to use," he said. "The uncovering of a favorable patent or a legal reinterpretation could change that. For example it is stated: "Kodak does not believe it currently has any essential claims that fall within the specification of the Recommendation as currently understood and interpreted by Kodak for implementors of SVG. However, Kodak hereby identifies U.S. Patent 5,459,819 and affirms that in the event that any claim of this patent is interpreted as an essential claim within the specification of the Recommendation in its current or later amended form, Kodak agrees to provide a RAND License as set forth in the previous paragraph."

"The significant change here is that Kodak (as a particular example) are not giving standards users any assurance that they will be able to continue to use SVG on a royalty-free basis in the future. A windfall judgment and we could have a problem of GIF-style proportions -- even though SVG is a W3C sanctioned standard and the company potentially doing the enforcing helped create the standard for people to freely use in the first place."

Responding to the deluge of comments, the W3C said it would extend the review period until Oct. 11.

"W3C recognizes that a royalty-free environment was essential to the growth of the Web, and the contributions of the open source developer community have been critical to its success," the W3C said Tuesday. "W3C also recognizes that software patents exist (and patent issues have become more prevalent with the growth of the Web), and ignoring them will do more harm than good. W3C is working hard to reach consensus in an area where there is an obvious tension, and to strike a balance among diverse interests."