W3C announces royalty-free patent policy
09:52, 21 May 2003 UTC | Edd Dumbill

In a significant step to protect the freedom to implement Web standards the W3C has announced the publication of its patent policy. After long debate, the royalty-free policy has been implemented as a result of widespread consensus.

In his Director's Decision -- the first time that such a decision has been made public outside of the W3C -- Tim Berners-Lee writes:

The Policy affirms and strengthens the basic business model that has driven innovation on the Web from its inception. The availability of an interoperable, unencumbered Web infrastructure provides an expanding foundation for innovative applications, profitable commerce, and the free flow of information and ideas on a commercial and non-commercial basis.

The effect of the patent policy is that all who participate in developing a W3C Recommendation must agree to license patents that block interoperability on a royalty-free basis. Certain patent claims may be excluded from the royalty-free commitment by members -- after considerable deliberation, and with substantial consensus among those involved and the W3C membership. These must also be disclosed early in the development process so they do not jeopardize a specification once it is developed. Patent disclosures are required from W3C members, and requested of anyone who sees the technical drafts and has actual knowledge of patents which affect a specification.

Tim Berners-Lee announced the release of this patent policy during his keynote address at WWW2003, and was met with applause from the audience.

Although the policy had consensus among W3C Members, not all were in agreement. In his decision Berners-Lee expressed his hope that "those Members who have expressed opposition ... will now find it is still in their interest to participate in the growth of the Web."

In a press conference given at WWW2003, Daniel Weitzner of the W3C described how the new patent policy finally formalizes what used to be the implictly accepted principle that web technology should be freely implementable. That implicit understanding was challenged five years ago, said Weitzner, particularly in the Platform for Privacy Preferences Working Group, which was held up for a year by patent-related uncertainty. The patent policy is designed to prevent these problems recurring, including as it does processes for resolving patent-related issues.

Dr. Don Deutsch, VP of standards at Oracle, gave a W3C member's perspective. Deutsch noted that the current policy is the result of much hard work, led by Weitzner, in gaining compromise among many members with widely differing positions.

From Deutsch's point of view, the work the W3C has done on their patent policy will set the standard for other consortia developing technical standards, many of whom have no clear policy on patents. One such organisation, IDEAlliance, recently declared its intention to adopt the W3C's patent policy for its own development groups.

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