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W3C Publishes Patent Policy Draft

An end may soon be coming to one of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) most contentious issues -- the reduction of the threat of blocking patents on vital pieces of infrastructure used to develop Web standards.

The organization Wednesday began what it expects to be the final review of the proposed Royalty-Free Patent Policy, a controversial rule which saw many firms staunchly defend their proprietary technology while open source evangelists sought to free it up for public use and implementation in Web standards.

For example, the passage of SOAP 1.2 was held up last November when two firms protested the use of some of its technology without being paid for it. They subsequently relented and the W3C revised its policy a week later.

The latest iteration of the evolving policy requires patent disclosure by W3C members when they are aware of patents that may be pertinent to the implementation of W3C standard recommendations. However, so as not to hinder development, working group participants may exclude some patent claims from the royalty-free commitment so long as the requests are made within 90 days after publication of the first public working draft.

In the event the W3C discovers proposed technologies that do not meet the conditions defined in the patent policy, will convene a Patent Advisory Group (PAG) to investigate the issue. The PAG may move to a legal analysis of the patent, instruct the working group to design around the patent or remove the patented feature, or may suggest stopping all work in the area.

If all attempts to meet W3C Licensing requirements fail, the PAG may ask the W3C that the technology be included anyway. For this, the licensing terms must be publicly disclosed and subject to review.

Daniel J. Weitzner, Patent Policy Working Group Chair and Leader of the W3C's Technology and Society Domain, lauded the policy, which has been crafted through thousands of hours of work over the last three years.

"This policy, put together by a diverse and knowledgeable group, furthers the spirit of innovation on which the Web has thrived," Weitzner said. "... with this final draft, the Working Group believes it has found a common, workable path that will encourage the widespread adoption of W3C standards across a wide range of business models, from proprietary to open source."

Patents in the software industry are particularly sticky issues when mixed with the development of standards, with businesses looking to protect their intellectual property and open source advocates demanding more liberties to develop as they choose.

The patent policy working group, whose members include AOL, Microsoft and IBM, began its chores in October 1999 after a patent claim against P3P derailed the development of that technology. After a legal analysis of the claim, the threat was removed and work resumed, but the issue touched off a firestorm of controversy with some favoring royalties and others opposing them.

W3C members and the general public are encouraged to participate in the review, which is scheduled to last for six weeks, ending April 30. W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee's decision on the final policy is expected in May 2003.