Patents be damned! That's the consensus of network engineers developing an industry standard for supporting foreign-language domain names in the Internet.
Non-English speaking Internet users are demanding domain names in their native languages, and corporations are eyeing the opportunity to market products via native-language Web sites. But the lack of an industry standard is hampering widespread usage of internationalized domain names.
Developing a standard for how these complex domain names are communicated across the Internet's existing infrastructure is a top priority of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet's premier standards-setting body.
The IETF's Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) working group was sidelined this spring by the discovery of a patent that appeared to cover the group's work. Now the IDN working group is forging ahead with a scheme for converting foreign language characters into U.S. ASCII equivalents for transmission over the Internet's DNS.
"We haven't made that much progress since December because of patent problems," says Marc Blanchet, co-chair of the IETF's IDN working group. "We sort of lost six months. . . . But now we are moving forward again."
Members of the IDN working group spent several weeks studying a patent on internationalized domain name resolution that was awarded in January to Walid, an Ann Arbor, Mich., start-up with employees participating in the IETF effort. The IDN working group now appears ready to continue developing its preferred technical approach - dubbed IDNA because it supports internationalized domain names in applications - regardless of Walid's patent.
"It looks like Walid's patent doesn't apply to us," says Paul Hoffman, co-author of several working group documents and a long-time participant in the IETF. Although he is not an attorney, Hoffman says he does "not believe Walid's patent affects IDNA. No one is concerned anymore."
The working group seems unfazed by other potential patent claims relating to internationalized domain names. In the past year, six companies including Walid have notified the IETF that they have applied for patents in this technology area. The other five companies are Neteka, I-DNS.net International, DualName, Y&D Information Systems Group and .NU Domain. Most of these companies have said that if they are awarded patents relating to the IETF's IDN standard, they will license their technology in a fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory manner.
"The problem is not that Walid has a patent; the problem is would Walid provide open access to [companies] to use the patent," Blanchet explains. "Now it's looking more and more like the Walid patent doesn't apply to us."
Blanchet notes that the IETF's IDN work is of such high importance and so visible that there's little the group can do to prevent companies from filing patents related to its work.
Walid officials haven't backed down on the intellectual property claims filed with the IETF.
"The [intellectual property] statement that we originally gave them is the statement that we have today," says Walid director Doug Hawkins. "It's consistent with a lot of other statements, and we plan to stick with it for the time being."
After 18 months of development and debate, the IDN working group is coalescing around the IDNA solution.
"IDNA is still the leading proposal," Blanchet says, although the group has not yet agreed to forward this approach to the IETF leadership for approval as a standard. "We're trying to focus on proposals that demonstrate a clear core of interest in the working group. . . . We need to see if there are any other alternatives to IDNA that have strong support."
The IDN working group hopes to reach consensus about the IDNA approach at its next meeting, which will be held in August in London.
If the IDNA approach is approved, a stable protocol document - called a request for comment - could be available to network engineers this fall.
That's good news for U.S. corporations, which are waiting for an IETF-blessed standard before they use internationalized domain names in their marketing plans.
"Our main concern is that there's a standard that functions, is interoperable, is usable by consumers and that allows the use of non-ASCII character sets," says Theresa Swinehart, a WorldCom attorney and a member of the business constituency at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. "We're waiting for the IETF to come out with whatever works."