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AOL Time Warner (AOLTW), one of the members of the 120-company consortium, has claimed that technology it contributed to the release of version 1.0 of the Liberty Alliance specification is patented and may be subject to special licensing requirements.
From the beginning, founding members of the project have vowed to deliver a completely open and royalty-free technology that would allow compatibility between single sign-on authentication systems from a variety of vendors and Web site operators. Sun Microsystems, which spearheaded the consortium, has been the most vocal advocate of this, arguing that a royalty-free specification is vital in order to provide an alternative to Microsoft's Passport authentication technology.
"Certainly Sun's position is that any of the critical infrastructure for the Web should be available on a royalty-free basis," said Bill Smith, director of Liberty Alliance technology at Sun. "It's why the Internet has got off the ground. If we start seeing tollbooths and barriers put up we're going to see an impediment to growth."
A copyright notice attached to the first version of the Liberty Alliance specification, which was released in July, states that "implementation of this specification may involve the use of one or more patents claimed by AOL Time Warner," and that "implementation of certain elements of this specification may also require licences under third party intellectual property rights".
AOLTW spokesman Andrew Weinstein said that while the company has claimed rights to certain technology in the specification, users would have free access to the specification in the first release. AOLTW has yet to decide how it will licence its technology in future versions of the specification.
"I think they're still working on some of the royalty issues," Weinstein said. "Obviously with any specification like this there are going to be some intellectual property issues. We're not the only one that is affected by this."
Sun's Smith said that it will give free access to the intellectual property Sun contributed to the project with only one condition: Any companies that charge royalty fees for their contributions will have to pay Sun for its intellectual property. That means, if AOLTW is the only company to charge royalties it will also be the only company that has to pay royalties to Sun.
The patents that AOLTW has staked claims to were acquired from Netscape Communications and are common Internet technologies, such as those used to enable e-commerce, such as cookies, and the security technology SSL (secure sockets layer), according to patent descriptions on file with the US. Patent and Trademark Office.
Because these patents are so widely used on the Internet, few expect AOLTW to charge royalty fees to companies that implement the Liberty specification, said Michael Barrett, president of the Liberty Alliance board, and vice-president for Internet strategy at American Express.
"If they choose to licence [their patents] they could hold half the Internet for ransom," he said.
A number of companies in addition to Sun and AOLTW have contributed technology to the project. However, the New York-based media and Internet company is the only member that has chosen to contribute technology under a so-called RAND (reasonable and nondiscriminatory) licence, according to Liberty Alliance officials. Used by a number of international standards bodies, RAND licences require that any intellectual property owner that charges royalties for technology included in a standard must charge a fee that is reasonable, published and not subject to individual negotiation.
Allowing member companies to contribute technology under a RAND licence is common in the standards-drafting community and doesn't clash with the group's philosophies, Barrett said.
"The general preference is that, to the extent that we can, the specification should be royalty free. However, there were a certain number of technology companies that simply find universal royalty-free unacceptable and pushed for the possibility of having RAND.
"This is actually an extremely common issue that standards organisations have to wrestle with," Barrett said. "We're sticking as close as we can to our principles, but we have to be pragmatic."