WWW creator Tim Berners Lee has given his strongest hint yet that the W3C organization he created ought to shun the idea of accepting royalty-bearing patents as web standards. He also acknowledges that the move could lead to the fragmentation of the Web.
Berners Lee's comments were made in a presentation to the W3C's Patent Policy Working Group (PPWG) earlier this month, the minutes of which were finally published yesterday.
The W3C has been under pressure from some of its constituents to add the option of blessing royalty-bearing patents as Web standards in the form of a new RAND license. The move has been greeted with outrage from software libre developers, who say that such a license is incompatible with open source development in general, and with the GNU GPL in particular.
The PPWG discussion a fortnight ago included for the first time Bruce Perens, former Debian lead and one of the authors of the Open Source definition, and Eben Moglen of the FSF. (Although with the working group's chair Danny Weitzner formerly at the EFF as its policy director, and committee Scott Peterson looking after open source licensing issues for HP, the group isn't short of people who know which way's up).
The minutes are worth studying closely. From our own parsing, and with our experience of smoke-filled committee rooms (although since this was held in Cupertino, there won't have been too much smoke) it appears that a steady tactical retreat from RAND licenses is being undertaken, albeit ever so slowly and diplomatically:
"The Patent Policy Working Group now has a variety of tools which can be assembled together to produce a sound patent policy for the Consortium," it concludes. (Or more accurately, doesn't).
*A final policy can only be developed after making some fundamental choices about the goals of the policy. We will seek guidance on these basic choices from the Advisory Committee through a series of questions to be developed over the next week and presented to the November meeting of the AC."
Which means the crunch decision has been put off for another day.
The PPWG did spend some time revisiting the contentious ground that a straightforward royalty-free policy doesn't answer: submarine patents, opt-outs and warranties, without actually trying to reach a consensus.
The minutes disappointed developer Daniel Philips, for one, who gently reminded the PPWG mailing list that the nuclear option hadn't receded:-
"If RAND licensing is used as a tool, it will inevitably lead to the formation of a competing, free web standards organization," he wrote. "I am distressed that some members of the working group still fail to understand the mood of the public. I do not find the presented document at all reassuring."
Quite. But then again, it's exactly with such opaque language that committees like to dig their way out of trouble. The barrier to throwing out RAND altogether is that issues discussed (of warranties, submarine patents) are just the kind of issues that immensely paranoid IBM lawyers tend to raise.
This wouldn't normally count for much, but IBM's legal department, which we can guess is privately horrified at seeing so much GPL-"contaminated" Linux work going on its labs recently, has decided to flex its muscles.
Although the overwhelming developer community consensus - now apparently endorsed by Berners Lee himself - is to keep things royalty-free, taming Big Blue's lawyers represents the W3C's biggest challenge yet.
If it fails to neuter the RAND proposal, it could find itself devoting its energies simply to persuading world+dog of its continuing legitimacy, or at worst, relevance. If the open source community can continue to mobilise against RAND, then it throws the ball back into IBM's court, daring it to be the company that talked standards while it broke the World Wide Web. ®
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