The Royalty-Frees Have It at W3C

After months
of rancorous
and wrangling
over sticking points, the World Wide Web
(W3C) Thursday revised its patent policy, which lets W3C
recommendations to be issued royalty-free.

Published in the form of the “Last Call
Working Draft,”
the latest iteration means those who participate in the creation of a
W3C recommendation must agree to license patents that block interoperability
without charging other users, so as not to stifle standards development,
according to the W3C.

The secondary goal of this play is to ask that W3C Members and others come
forth when they are aware of patents that may be essential to the
implementation of W3C Recommendations. To be clear: the policy does not
dictate that group members must open up one’s entire patent portfolio.
Rather, it concerns those patents that are
essential to use a standard that one participates in developing at W3C.

The Working Group has developed a
process for resolving disputes when patent claims that are not royalty-free
are identified. Options including designing around the patents,
investigating the validity of the patents, or transitioning the work to
another organization that is willing to produce RAND (reasonable and
non-discriminatory terms) standards.

How is this different from previous patent policy results? In previous
drafts, the Patent Policy Working Group dealt with issues regarding both
royalty-free and other technologies in W3C Recommendations.

With this draft, the Working Group proposes: only RF Recommendations are
allowed; participants must commit up front to RF licenses for
Recommendations they participate in developing; participants may defend
use of their patents; the RF licensing only applies to technologies
essential for implementing the W3C specification.

The RAND track has also been removed so that members may not switch a design
effort from a RF to a RAND group during the process.

W3C spokesperson Janet Daly said the Patent Policy Working Group spent the last year responding to comments and criticism from the previous Last Call draft. That period was
fraught with contention, as a slew of developers were upset that standards implementation could be halted by patent holders anxious to defend their intellectual property.

Specifically, it’s a fresh blow from the August 2001 Working Draft, where
two Working Group members filed formal objections. No formal objections were
registered on this revision, but as late as last week, Epicentric and
webMethods were balking at
freeing up their IP because they felt the W3C recommendation overlapped with
certain aspects of their technologies related to the SOAP 1.2 Standard.

The Last Call comment period is open for public and member comments through
December 31, 2002. The Patent Policy Working Group will produce a final
draft proposal, called a Proposed Recommendation, which will be approved or
denied by W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee.

The Working Group hopes to advance
to Proposed Recommendation in February or March 2003, with a final policy to
be adopted by May 2003.

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