Proprietary lobby triumphs in first open standards showdown

Software patent heavyweights piled into the first public meeting of the Cabinet Office consultation on open standards on 4 April, conquering the meeting ballot with a resounding call to scrap the government’s policy on open standards.

Open source and open standards campaigners complained they hadn’t been invited to the Round Table event, the proceedings of which Cabinet Office will use to decide the fate of its beleaguered open standards policy.

Government supporters felt a growing sense of urgency over the consultation. Scattered and underfunded, they looked incapable of standing up to the big business interests that induced the consultation with backroom lobbying and have stepped forward now the debate has been brought out into the open.

Computer Weekly understands Cabinet Office officials regretted they hadn’t got the meeting call out to a wider audience. Open standards supporters who attended complained it was stacked with opponents who easily dominated a meeting motion against the government’s open standards policy.

Linda Humphries, Cabinet Office open standards official, said yesterday in a blogged report of the meeting: “The consensus was that the… proposed policy would be detrimental to competition and innovation.”

Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe, which has worked closely with Cabinet Office IT policy makers, said he was “disappointed” the meeting hadn’t been “representative”.

Malcolm Newbury, consultant director at Guildfoss, said: “It was me and Graham against the rest. The patent lawyers had the most to say and they definitely wanted to include royalties on standards. They don’t want the government to maintain its current position.”

Heavyweights at the meeting included Steve Mutkoski, Microsoft’s global head of standards, who flew in from Seattle. He was backed in debate by patent lawyers and experts from the telecoms industry that holds many of the patents being wielded against government policy.

Matthew Heim, senior director and legal counsel for $16bn US telecoms corporation Qualcomm, was present. As was Timothy Cowen, partner with Sidley Austin LLP, former general counsel for BT and founder of the Microsoft-backed Open Computing Alliance.

Behind them was Richard Kemp, senior partner at Kemp Little LLP, the “global top 10” ranked lawyer who represents numerous telecoms firms as well as record industry royalty collectors; Keith Mallinson, founder of WiseHarbor, a telecoms industry consultant; and Harshad Karadbhajne, a paralegal patent expert with Innovate Legal.

The debate swung wide of the truth as heavyweights complained government policy would exclude the patented software standards supported by their preferred software licence, known as FRAND – Fair, Reasonable, and non-Discriminatory.

Government policy, withdrawn under organized pressure from the patent lobby last year, had however not excluded FRAND. It had proposed giving preference to royalty-free software standards in government systems, but conceded FRAND standards might be used when there was no alternative.

That is the matter now in consultation. The patent lobby swiped the initiative with arguments that will feed those who accused it of using misinformation to win similar debates in other places, most notably Brussels, where a significant huddle of the heavyweights cut their teeth.

If they failed to expose genuine flaws in government policy, they at least focused attention on the points where government justification has appeared weakest. Cabinet Office’s proposal for a mandatory list of open standards was unfair, they argued, because it would forbid standards encumbered with patents. This was however the whole point of the open standards policy, notwithstanding that it had, again, conceded patent-encumbered standards would be tolerated where no open standards where available.

These are the arguments with which the patent lobby induced government to withdraw its open standards policy last year and put it to consultation.

Open source campaigners said they had been left out. Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the Open Standards Consortium complained the meeting had been held without his knowledge. Linda Humphries had just days before attended a British Computer Society meeting where Gavigan delivered a talk about her policy consultation. Gavigan had locked antler’s with Microsoft’s Mutkoski at the meeting. But Humphries had not brought the Cabinet Office event to people’s attention.

Richard Melville, a member of the BCS Open Source specialist group, said: “No-one seemed to know about the meeting at all.”

Simon Phipps, former head of open source at Sun Microsystems, and who also regretted missing the meeting said: “I’m hearing from sources that the Cabinet Office hasn’t had much input from open source interests and is being lobbied extremely heavily by the forces of monopoly.”

Other people at the meeting included Peter Brown, secretary to the board of standards body Oasis, who argued forcefully in favour of patent-encumbered standards. And also Ajit Jaokar, founder of research company Futuretext, a telecoms expert with a self-professed leaning for open systems; Dr Andrew Hopkirk, an independent consultant, formerly of the National Computing Centre; and Aingaran Pillai, open source software engineer and founder of Zaizi, an Alfresco systems integrator.