W3C proposal could allow patent grabs on standards

After a blizzard of critical postings hit the Web site of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body Monday evening extended the deadline until Oct. 11 for public comment on its proposal to allow patented technology to be incorporated in Web standards.

The proposal for a "Patent Policy Framework" would permit the standards body to endorse standards that use patented technology, and permit the patent holder to issue "reasonable and nondiscriminatory," or RAND, licenses -- and potential royalty demands -- to use the standard.

Critics charge that the W3C draft proposal is a cash cow for powerful corporate interests. If patented technology is endorsed in a W3C standard, the patent holder would be assured a virtual monopoly over the standard's use, and could squeeze competitors, small businesses, and the open-source community, critics said in about 1,000 postings on the W3C site.

"The problem with that is that if you are allowing companies to license what would be an open standard, then it's not really an open standard," said Matthew Copeland, a private computer consultant and Linux programmer under contract for Honeywell International Inc. "If I wanted to write something that fits to a W3C standard, I couldn't without spending money to license the technology."

Customarily, the W3C has avoided setting standards with patented technology, or has endorsed a patented technology as a standard when the patent holder agrees either not to press the patent claim, or to issue royalty-free licenses.

Some of the W3C's recent standards proposals govern the use of links in XML (extensible markup language) Web pages, a first draft of the SOAP (simple object access protocol) to allow Web applications to communicate with one another, and a recommendation for the standardized use of scalable vector graphics.

Standards set by the W3C are composed by working groups that are mostly self-selected from within the body's membership of businesses and other organizations, said Janet Daly, a W3C spokeswoman. The patent policy working group "was created fairly quickly, because of patent issues being raised within the W3C, and the threat of patent claims being filed," she said.

The possibility of a patent holder laying claim to technology used in the P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences) standard -- which permits Web browsers to reliably navigate the data-collection and -sharing practices of Web sites -- forced the W3C to scramble its defenses against a potential patent challenge.

From this effort, the patent policy working group emerged to counter future threats. Another technology standards battle gave the W3C reason to believe it should address patent policy decisively, Daly said. A battle was raging between memory chip designer Rambus Inc. and other memory makers over memory standards endorsed by the JEDEC (Joint Electron Device Engineering Council), a microchip standards body. Rambus held patents on key memory technology for DDR (double data rate) SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM), and was accused of pushing JEDEC to set the DDR SDRAM standard to Rambus' patents.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia set aside a jury verdict in August from the May trial of Rambus, clearing the memory chip designer of the allegations.

Most of the members of the W3C patent policy working group came from the largest technology companies including Microsoft Corp., Apple Computer Inc., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp., among others. The only input from noncorporate interests within the group came from W3C staff.

Deliberations within W3C working groups are secret, and critics posting to the public comment page for the proposal claim that they were insufficiently notified of the draft, which was released to the public in August. The public comment period closed for the draft Sept. 30, but the vast majority of comments received came in the last three days, after articles appeared on various open source community news sites.

"This is one of the other reasons we have working drafts," Daly said.

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George A. Chidi Jr

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