W3C readies new tech patent policy

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is poised to unveil a formal policy for dealing with technology patents that have the potential to block the development of interoperable Web standards.

Tim Berners-Lee, director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based W3C, said a decision on the patent policy is due to be announced "very shortly," now that the organization's management team has reviewed feedback collected during a public comment period that ended April 30. He declined to disclose details of the new policy.

A W3C working group has spent more than three years developing a precisely defined patent policy to replace the "minimalistic" and "very loose" provisions that currently require members who know of patent claims relevant to ongoing standards work to disclose them, said Daniel Weitzner, chairman of W3C's patent policy working group.

Bridging a Gap

Weitzner said the policy drafted by the working group reflects the "overwhelming goal" of producing standards that can be implemented royalty-free. But the group also included an exception provision that will make it possible for members to consider alternate licensing terms when it's deemed impossible to meet the royalty-free goal, he said.

That reflected a desire for flexibility as well as the group's attempt to acknowledge the concerns of those who favor a so-called reasonable and nondiscriminatory model that permits the collection of patent licensing fees, Weitzner said.

The need to establish a formal policy became apparent as some patent holders started to assert claims to technology being used as part of proposed Web standards. One notable case involved a claim from Seattle-based Intermind Corp., now known as OneName Corp., that the W3C's Platform for Privacy Preferences might infringe on a patent it held.

More recently, the W3C's patent policy became a hot topic of discussion among some W3C members who have speculated why IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and other vendors have been submitting some key Web services standards proposals to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) instead of the W3C.

IBM and Microsoft insisted that their decision to propose a Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) specification within Billerica, Mass.-based OASIS had nothing to do with patent issues -- a claim they backed up when they submitted BPEL to OASIS under royalty-free terms. The companies said they chose OASIS because they felt it was the more appropriate standards body for high-level business specifications.

Karla Norsworthy, director of dynamic e-business technologies at IBM, said IBM's intention in the core Web services space is to submit only proposals for which it would provide a royalty-free license, since there's a need for broad adoption of Web services standards.

But Norsworthy said she can see a need for the exception provision in the patent policy proposed by the W3C to allow a working group to decide to publish a specification, even if a patent claim is raised. "I think the W3C is being practical in allowing a specification to go forward and working out the [intellectual property] from some third party as they go," she said.

Don Deutsch, vice president of standards strategy at Oracle Corp., said the provision was a last-minute compromise designed to address the concerns of IBM and Microsoft. Deutsch added that he expects it to be approved.

Weitzner said the exception provision "was an effort to address the concerns of a number of members." He added that the proposed exception procedure was designed to be hard to use "because the working group didn't want it to be used often."

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