A web standards schism would be "a terrible thing", says the man at the centre of the firestorm over the blessing of royalty-bearing patents by the World Wide Web Consortium. Danny Weitzner is the head of the W3C's Patent Policy Working Group, and we caught up with him earlier today.
We raised the prospect of a breakaway after the ferocious reaction to the W3C's mooted RAND license. The suggestion that royalty-bearing licenses (RAND) should take their place alongside royalty-free licenses would make open source implementations difficult or impossible, say community luminaries. The public mailing list has drawn over a thousand critical comments since Saturday.
The nightmare scenario runs like this.
A company introduces a royalty-bearing technology under a RAND license, and it become a W3C-approved standard. The free software community decides not to pay the piper, and sets about creating a royalty-free and open alternative.
"That would be a terrible thing," says Weitzner. While acknowledging that it's a possibility he says, "for me as the chairman of the working group we'll do everything possible to prevent this."
"We are looking for other ways to keep this discussion going, but we don't expect everyone's going to be one hundred per cent satisfied," he told us.
Wouldn't the fear of a balkanization of the web cause W3C members to pause before blessing a standard that incorporates a punitive patent?
"I'd hope that's true. If we did stuff in RAND mode, and the open source people were going to use a different technology in a royalty-free license, it would have to cause us to think about it."
However Weitzner defended the RAND license on the basis that it puts patent nasties upfront, and forces patent holders to declare their interests at the start of the standards process:-
He cites the example of the P3P issue. In that case, Platform for Privacy Preferences discussions were well-advanced when one of the participants - Intermind - declared that it had relevant patents and demanded a royalty of 1 per cent. The W3C hired a patent attorney and found examples of prior art, but the process took a year.
That wouldn't be permitted under the dual-track RAND/RF licenses, he says.
At the time of the Intermind dispute, Weitzner was vocal in his defense of royalty-free as the One True License Model. "Weitzner is equally insistent that the only way a privacy standard would gain widespread industry adoption is if it is open and license-free," noted Interactive Week.
What changed his mind?
"We observed some general trends, and concluded that we should at least think about RAND," he says.
"Number is one that overused word, 'convergence'. More and more we're seeing the convergence of the Web into broadcasting, consumer electronics, broadcasting and telecoms, and I would suggest that they've pretty much succeeded in RAND mode," says Weitzner.
Ah yes, but RAND-style licensors currently have to fight to get a patent through the W3C. Doesn't the W3C's RAND give them a green light to do so?
Again, he disagrees, arguing that the proposal still has to be ratified, and hoping that the patent holder would realize that they "have to make money by implementing it well", as he puts it, rather than seeing a web standard as a cash cow. "We'll use every tool at our disposal to clear the way for a Royalty-Free proposal".
We asked if the W3C stood to gain financially from RAND licenses?
"The W3C owns no patents and takes no revenue," he says.
Wouldn't it accept even a little bakseesh in the form of administrative fees?
"Absolutely not. That's between the licensor and the licensee. There's no cut for the W3C."
Weitzner is leaving the door open, with an extended review period. On a number of occasions he stressed that royalty-free standards had been instrumental in the adoption of the Web. And he described such standards as a valuable social contract.
However the determination of the open source community to develop royalty-free alternatives should the need arise is equally strong. Should a RAND license be eventually adopted by the W3C, an alternative is sure to be created.
Whether that involves the creation of alternative web standards umbrella, or the adoption of web standards into an existing body, or simply the trench warfare option of taking each RAND standard as it comes, remains to be seen. ®