OASIS revamps IP policy to avoid hidden patent charges

After more than two years of review and deliberation, a key Web standards consortium has revised its intellectual property policy, forcing contributors to declare whether they plan to collect royalties on work they submit to the organization's technical committees.

The consortium, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), will implement the change on April 15. Under the new policy, the organization's existing technical committees will have two years to declare whether the standards they are developing are being released under "royalty free" terms, which do not allow patent holders to charge for their intellectual property (IP). Committees formed after April 15 must declare their IP policy upon creation.

The point of the policy change is to simplify things for companies or developers by giving them a clear statement about whether they could be paying royalties on software based on the consortium's standards, said OASIS Board of Directors Chair Jim Hughes, a Hewlett-Packard employee.

OASIS is looking to avoid a situation like the one that befell the chip industry when Rambus began seeking royalties for processors based on the SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) memory standard. Rambus eventually was found guilty of fraud for participating in standards meetings without disclosing that it owned patents that related to SDRAM, but that verdict subsequently was overturned by an appeals court. The court found that the standards group in question, the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council, did not have a clear enough IP disclosure policy to charge Rambus with fraud.

Questions about the OASIS IP policy were raised in 2002 when IBM disclosed that it had a patent claim covering technology it had contributed to the OASIS Electronic Business XML (Extensible Markup Language) standard, or ebXML. IBM later said that it had no intention of charging royalties for ebXML, but the fact that it could have done so worried some developers.

"What's happening today will avoid that kind of situation," said Hughes. "We want people to adopt the specs. The specs are worthless if people don't implement them. This improves the environment for implementing OASIS specifications."

The new policy ultimately will make it more difficult for standards contributors to charge for patents, said one OASIS member, who asked not to be identified. "I think that most new groups will be royalty free and that (the other) groups won't get many members," he said via e-mail. "Patents are like nuclear warheads. ... what OASIS is doing is creating a nuclear-free zone, at least for standards."

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