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W3C Debates Patent Policy

The World Wide Web Consortium has extended its deadline for comments for its Patent Policy Framework. If approved, the new proposal would allow companies to claim patent rights on W3C-authorized Web software standards.
The World Wide Web Consortium has set an extended deadline--Oct. 11--for submitting comments about the group's Patent Policy Framework, and for good reason. The document, also known as the "reasonable and non-discriminatory" (RAND) licensing proposal, has generated a firestorm of responses on the W3C site. Visitors have posted more than 1,300 responses during the past four days, and few of them are fence sitters.

Here's why: The new proposal could allow companies to claim patent rights on W3C-authorized Web software standards--and collect royalty fees from developers as a result. Many people in the IT community feel uneasy about the large vendors involved in creating the proposal. While the work group for RAND includes W3C representatives, it also includes representatives from Apple, AT&T, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Philips Electronics, Reuters, and Sun Microsystems.

Standards are great when they're evenly and fairly instituted, says Darrel Sisson, senior programmer/analyst for PHB Inc., a manufacturing company located in Fairview, Pa. "They have done wonders for programming languages everywhere. No one owns the patent on Cobol; it's a standard created by an impartial group of experts, with ease-of-use, consistency, and portability as the goal." Sisson questions the impartiality of the RAND group. "This group sounds too much like bands of thieves cooperating on a big heist."

Jim Johnson, chairman of the Standish Group, a research and consulting firm in West Yarmouth, Mass., agrees. "While businesses have the right to make money on their efforts, I think the RAND proposal flies in the face of everything that the W3C has stood for. Such an adoption could render it impotent," he says.

Not so, says Ian Jacobs, a W3C spokesman. While he praises many of the online responses for their insightfulness, Jacobs says that much of the discussion surrounding the proposal is based on misinformation. One example is the common misconception that W3C has a policy stating it only writes specs that could be implemented free. "We've never had that," he says, and encourages people to view the Patent Policy FAQs.

Misconceptions notwithstanding, it still may be tough for participating vendors to win over folks like George Tucker. A graphic designer for retail chain The Thymes Inc., Tucker says the proposal would complicate his Web-design duties. "If these companies start modifying the spec itself, the issue of compatibility will be compounded--by orders of magnitude. It's hard enough to please a marketing department, and having to write code to accommodate every browser's idiosyncrasies is starting to get really old."

Says Tucker: "I'm very disappointed in Apple, HP, Sun, and the rest. They should know better. They are doing their best to drive me to Linux."

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