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A couple of weeks ago I lamented the dismal performance of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) ( www.icann.org) and the way in which it seems to be shifting control of one of the Internet's key elements even further towards the rich and powerful. This is a matter of grave concern because Icann is one of the three crucial global organisations that effectively run the Internet.
The other two are the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) ( www.ietf.org) and the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C) ( www.w3.org). The IETF seems to be functioning as well as ever, turning out a steady stream of generally sound RFCs. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the W3C, which looks to be in imminent danger of becoming irrelevant.
The thorny issue on which the consortium seems hell-bent on impaling itself is that of patents.
In previous columns I have commented on the deleterious effect new patents are having on the Internet. Rightly, the W3C has decided to formalise its position on patents that affect its work. But, totally wrongly, its new patent policy capitulates to the current patent frenzy in the US, and tries to reach an unhappy accommodation with this situation.
The proposed policy is spelt out at http://www.w3.org/TR/2001/WD-patent-policy-20010816/, with a backgrounder at http://www.w3.org/2001/08/patentnews and a FAQ at http://www.w3.org/2001/08/16-PP-FAQ.html.
Reading these, it is clear that the whole premise of the proposal is flawed. It is based on the idea that the Web can only go forward if proprietary software companies are prepared to offer their patented technologies for use in new W3C standards, and that they will only do so if they are allowed to charge royalties.
The W3C's rather sad attempt at damage limitation is to call for what it terms "reasonable, non-discriminatory" licensing terms - Rand for short.
But one of the central roles of the consortium is to use its considerable prestige to put subtle but firm pressure on companies to release technologies for royalty-free use. If they will not, then other, totally open alternatives can and should be developed, as happened with the Gif image format.
This was more or less universal on the Web until the patent holder started demanding royalty payments. In response, the open PNG graphics format was developed with the help of the W3C (see www.w3.org/Graphics/PNG/) and is now a widely-used alternative. The backing of the W3C was crucial, since it ensured the support of the leading browsers, which were keen to claim compliance with W3C standards.
In other words, the W3C should be in the vanguard of the attempt to stamp out the unreasonable patenting of technologies, rather than limply accepting the situation. In particular, it should have no truck with the ridiculous business method patents being granted in the US for ideas that are so obvious that no one outside that country would ever think of trying to patent them.
What is astonishing about the idea of incorporating patented technologies into W3C standards is how it flies in the face of the entire history of not just the consortium and the Web, but of the Internet too.
As I have noted many times in this column, there is little doubt that one of the reasons why the Internet and the World-Wide Web took off so quickly is that they were built on open technologies, owned by no one. As a result, software companies that were otherwise deadly rivals could support them without feeling that they were compromising their competitive position.
Allowing companies to charge royalties - even on Rand terms - would destroy the very dynamics that made the open Internet and Web so successful.
As with Icann's latest moves, it would tend to give even more power to larger companies with major patent portfolios. It is surely no coincidence that four of the six authors of the new patent policy come from the corporate giants Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Philips.