Opinion

Will W3C bow to the royalty?

As Tim Berners-Lee defends royalty-free standards, the W3C seems to be losing its way.

The 11th World Wide Web Conference has just taken place and, fortunately for those of us who did not make it to Honolulu, the hundreds of papers that were presented there are already available online.

Among these is a rather boring slideshow. For the first 20 or so slides there is a clever but not very informative sequence about nested protocols and standards, until finally, on slide number 20, things start to get interesting. There is to be found bullet points noting how royalty-free standards are central to the basic Internet standards - TCP/IP, DNS, FTP etc - to the Web, and to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

What turns these otherwise rather banal comments into something important is the fact that the person making them is none other than the inventor of the Web, and head of the W3C, Tim Berners-Lee. His emphatic statement of these principles assumes particular significance in the context of the recent power struggle within the W3C, discussed a few months ago in this column.

That battle arose over whether companies holding relevant patents should be allowed to charge for the use of their ideas and technologies within official W3C standards. Those for the idea offered the carrot of "reasonable and non-discriminatory" (Rand) terms, which were meant to mitigate the effects of paying royalties by keeping them low and fair.

But, as opponents pointed out, this would have excluded one of the most energetic sources of ideas and code - free software, the creators of which by definition would have been unable to pay even minimal royalties. As I have written before, had the W3C acquiesced in the introduction of Rand licensing, it would have effectively meant the death of the Web as we know it.

The otherwise innocuous-looking slide and those that follow it in the generally dull presentation from Berners-Lee were surely his attempt to put his authority behind the traditional, royalty-free approach before the nearest thing that the global Web community has to an annual general meeting.

As to enshrining this approach in official documents, there is already something called the Current Patent Practice. The significant thing about this W3C Note, as it is termed, is the fact that it addresses only the issues that concern royalty-free implementation of recommendations, and comments simply that, "While we do not currently have a process for Rand groups, the Patent Policy Working Group has been asked to look into creating one." Presumably the hope of Berners-Lee and his supporters is that by the time this is done the consensus will be that Rand licensing is unacceptable and therefore no Rand policy will be needed.

Unfortunately, one of the most active areas in terms of new technology, that of Web services, is also one where major players - notably IBM and Microsoft - appear to have patents affecting standards work. So far this has not been a problem, but it is probably no coincidence that, for all its growing importance, Web services is an area where the W3C has been following rather than leading. Its Web services activity page is beginning to fill up, but it is still painfully thin compared to other areas of the W3C.

During the heady days of the browser wars, the W3C played an important role by offering an independent body that users in particular could rally around. More generally, during the dotcom boom the W3C stood out as a beacon of sanity amidst the increasingly implausible claims and activities of the e-commerce start-ups. But inevitably the question that poses itself now is: what exactly is the role of the W3C today?

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This was first published in May 2002

 

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