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W3C Adopts Patent Policy

After years of wrangling over whether it should recommend standards which could include royalty conditions, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tuesday created a policy which provides a narrow method for including non-royalty free technology in exceptional circumstances.

The W3C ratified its new W3C Patent Policy in a meeting in Budapest Tuesday, "based on widespread member endorsement, agreement in the W3C Patent Policy Working Group, and support from interested members of the public," the standards organization said.

"It was not unanimous but it was an overwhelming majority," Daniel Weitzner, W3C Technology and Society Domain Leader and chair of the Patent Policy Working Group, told from Budapest. "We got more member votes on this issue than any other issue we've ever submitted to the membership. We also got more positive votes overall than any other recommendation in the history of the consortium."

He added, "I'm really happy about it. I think that it's going to be a really important step for W3C and really important for the future of the Web. In some ways, all this policy does is kind of formalize the informal expectations that have been critical to the Web all along. There's some sense that all we've done is write it down. But I think that taking that step of really securing agreement so broadly in the community is going to make a big difference for the future."

The W3C's quest to create a patent policy has been contentious since its first Patent Policy Framework draft was released in 2001. But after two years of ironing out issues, Weitzner said the working group achieved its goals and created a policy that almost all W3C members could support.

"For a number of members, [the vote] reflected substantive support for this policy," he said. "I think it also reflected a sense that this was certainly a hard-fought compromise. I think even for those members who might have preferred a different policy, they were willing to support this because they saw it was a policy that the entire consortium could live and work with."

The new patent policy requires that all those who participate in the development of a W3C recommendation must license essential claims on an RF basis. It requires W3C members to make patent disclosures, and requests anyone else who sees the technical drafts to share knowledge of patents which may be essential.

But the policy also lays out an exception handling process for dealing with unexpected patent claims that are not consistent with the terms of the W3C Patent Policy, for instance, if a company not involved with the W3C claims that a particular specification developed by the consortium depends on one of its patents. In such a case, the policy outlines a very specific procedure to follow.

If a situation arises, the policy calls on the W3C to convene a Patent Advisory Group (PAG) to investigate the issue. Each PAG will consist of representatives from W3C members participating in the working group, and the PAG may recommend a legal analysis of the patent, the removal of the patented feature, or stopping work in the area altogether.

"If all avenues to reach a result consistent with W3C Licensing requirements have been exhausted, the PAG may recommend to the W3C membership that the technology be included anyway," the W3C said. "Such a recommendation requires that the precise licensing terms are publicly disclosed and will be subject to review by the public, the W3C membership, and the director."

"Anyone who thinks that's going to be an easy way to squeeze fees out of Web standards I think is mistaken," Weitzner said.

He added, "I view that really as just building in a measure of flexibility into the policy."

Weitzner said the organization will now prepare to use the policy and project it will implement it by the fall.

"W3C members who joined in building the Web in its first decade made the business decision that they, and the entire world, would benefit most by contributing to standards that could be implemented ubiquitously, without royalty payments," said Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and father of the World Wide Web. "By adopting this patent policy, W3C's members will continue to be able to concentrate on the business of producing the best possible technical standards for the Web with the best chance for widespread adoption. W3C now sets the benchmark for the pragmatic way to successfully develop royalty-free Web standards in the current patent environment."