W3C seeks royalty-free standards

Looking to formalize its royalty-free standards position in May, the World Wide Web Consortium on Wednesday began the final review period for its patent policy.

While emphasizing royalty-free Web infrastructure standards, the W3C plan does allow for exceptions to the policy in rare circumstances such as when a technology needs to be included in a specification but is not available on a royalty-free basis.

"It's a policy which is by default royalty-free [but] by exception allows the consideration of technology that's available other than on a royalty-free basis, and I believe it is a policy which is acceptable to the open-source community," said Donald Deutsch, vice president of standards and strategy at Oracle and a participant in the working group.

The policy, which is subject to a public review period through April 30, is intended to reduce the threat of blocking patents, in which a particular entity seeks royalties for implementations of W3C specifications because of a contributing technology. W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee will then decide whether to issue the policy as a formal W3C recommendation, the final stage of approval.

W3C, in formulating its policy, is attempting to prevent patent claims from inhibiting development of its industry specifications, said Daniel Weitzner, chairman of the patent policy working group, which developed the policy.

"What has happened recently is we have had more and more situations in which patent claims have impeded the development of new Web infrastructure," Weitzner said. He cited an incident in which a vendor sought a royalty for use of its technology in the W3C P3P (Platform for Privacy Preference), a standard for machine-readable privacy policy.

"What happened was, first of all, that discouraged a lot of people from putting effort into the work if the money was going to go to just one company," Weitzner said.

The patent policy requires patent disclosures by W3C members when they are aware of their patents being essential to implementation.

The policy provides that:

* All who participate in the development of W3C Recommendation agree to license essential claims, or patents that block interoperability, on a royalty-free basis.

* Under certain circumstances, working group participants may exclude specifically identified patent claims from the royalty-free commitment, with exclusions required shortly after publication of the specification's first working draft.

* Patent disclosures are required of W3C members and requested of anyone else who sees technical drafts and has actual knowledge of affected patents.

* Patent claims not available with terms consistent with W3C Patent Policy will be handled by a dispute resolution process. An example would be a patent holder wanting to charge a fee for use of a technology. The W3C would convene a patent advisory group to investigate the issue and recommend legal analysis of the patent, instruct the working group to design around it or remove the patented feature, or stop work in the area. The PAG also may recommend inclusion of the technology with precise, publicly available licensing terms.

This narrow window for including nonroyalty-free technologies is intended to preserve flexibility for unexpected situations. It is to be used in rare cases.

Participants in the working group include: America Online, Apple Computer, AT&T, Avaya, Daisy Consortium, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, ILOG, Intel, Lexmark International, Microsoft, MITRE, Motorola, Nokia, Nortel Networks, The Open Group, Oracle, Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV, Reuters, Sun Microsystems, and Xerox. Also participating are the Free Software Foundation, Software in the Public Interest, and the Open Source Initiative.

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