Today is the deadline for comments on the Last Call Working Draft W3C Royalty-Free Patent Policy. It is quite a good compromise for us, and it may well be the best we can get. There is, however, one remaining issue: the 'field of use' clause that would allow royalties for patented protocols, if they are used outside a particular field of use. For more information, read the FSF comments. Below you will find my response to the Patent Policy Working Group (PPWG), sent today 31 December 2002, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm very grateful for the tremendous amount of work that has gone into the
Royalty-Free Patent Policy. In addition to doing a Masters in Science and
Technology Policy, I'm a Software Consultant, and I use Free and Open
Software exclusively because that is the only way I can assure that I can
adapt the software I use to the specific needs of my clients.
I realize that a lot of work has gone into the current compromise, and I
really appreciate how the Patent Policy Working Group has listened to and
acted on the input of the public, and worked with Bruce Perens, Larry Rosen,
Eben Moglen, and others. The current compromise is laudable, and I realize it
may be the best we can get short of the W3C becoming irrelevant by being
bypassed altogether by corporate interests trying to establish a 'standard'.
However, I must admit I am worried about the 'field of use' clause in the
proposal. I'm afraid it will make the standards the W3C endorses rather
irrelevant, as they will be much less attractive for (grassroots) innovative
purposes. A short example to illustrate this point:
Imagine that the Internet Protocol (IP) was established under the RF
licensing requirements as proposed, and that it would only be RF when used on
the internet. Would we have seen the proliferation of the IP as we see today? I
don't think so. Proprietary networks that have switched to the IP would not have
done so, e.g. Novell would probably not have dumped IPX in favour of the IP if
there was a royalty fee involved. Companies selling products that use the IP
would have had to spend much time and effort also supporting proprietary
protocols they would understand less thoroughly because there would be much
less documentation and sample implementations, and they would be much harder
to come by. This would result in buggy implementations and/or much higher
overhead. People unaffiliated with (big) corporations would not have used IP
for the thousands of innovations that they have come up with since, making
the marketplace even more fragmented.
Essentially, the more open the standard, the higher the chance it will become
widely used and accepted (given that there are no monopolistic factors that
work against it). This is something the creators of the Internet Protocol
understood well - they decidedly didn't try to foresee how the protocol would
be used, rightly realising they could never guess all future uses of their
innovation. Instead, they tried to remove as many barriers towards
unforeseen future use as they could, both technically (by making it totally
open and designing a 'stupid' network) and more relevant for this argument,
financially - no royalty fees whatsoever. The result is the Internet Protocol as we know it
today - omnipresent, unencumbered. Why limit the chances of open W3C
standards to become the most widely used, by allowing royalties for
In the long run, I think this is in the interest of both (big) industry and
more independant developers. The value of having a pool of standards totally
unencumbered by Intellectual Property Rights, is that much more is available
for innovators to build on. In other words, barriers to innovation go down.
More innovations will be made, directly resulting in economic growth for
everyone involved. If we choose this road, everyone will benefit. If not,
only a few (large) entities will, and certainly not to a similar extent. In
that case, the world will be a much less interesting place for people with a
passion for technology...
31 December 2002.
Well, I don't I agree with your comment ;) I don't think I am talking about 'viral' conditions here. I'm not at all arguing that all W3C standards need to be under the GPL.
I'm just saying that all patented software going into standards should be free for all to use as one sees fit, Royalty-Free also when used in ways that have not been foreseen by the holder of the patent.
After all, we are talking about standards here - agreements for easy interoperation between people and/or machines. If the concept of language would be a W3C standard, the current proposal would be like saying 'if you use language for something else than speaking, for which the standard was originally designed, you may need to pay royalties'. So if I wanted to write, I may need to pay royalties.
I think that's a dangerous idea, and one that will make innovation will suffer. As a consequence, so will our economy and our society.
Of course, the root of the problem is patented software and 'business-methods'. That should never, ever have been allowed - but then that is a fight we have to take up with our politicians!
There is no point writing to the W3C to tell us you don't like software patents. Write to your MP or congress-woman or whatever.
Write to comment on the patent policy; remember, though, that this is a policy for how we will try to deal with the case where an organization asserts that it *does* have a patent that covers something we're trying to standardise.
We can't make the patent go away. Neither can we make the organisation give up their right to enforce the patent altogether. We can ask them to agree to do so in exchange for participating, but then there is always the danger that an organisation will see more value in leaving the W3C than in agreeing to give up the rights to collect royalties on their patent - and yes, this has happened in the past.
If some organisation or individual is granted a patent for using the symbol "/" in a URL (say), then we can change the syntax of URLs. If they are granted a patent for using a name to identify a ermote resource (fudamental to the concept of the URI) then there's nothing much we can do except challenge the law. And that sort of thing has happened too, of course.
It would be great if we could get everyone to agree to abandon their patents. If you know how to do that, let us know :-)
Until then, we have to live and work in a world with software patents, especially in the US, and this means that we have to make some tough decisions abuot what's involved. I have bnot been involved with this work, but I do recognise that it's been a long struggle.
[Note: I am Liam Quin, XML Activity Lead at W3C]