The W3C's RAND Patent Policy
October 2, 2001 6:30 AM   Subscribe

The W3C's RAND Patent Policy commenting deadline has been extended. At first glance, the new policies seem to encourage software patents, but after reading the whole thing and the W3C's response to current comments, it looks, to my admittedly naive eyes, as though the W3C is trying to make it so that companies using proprietary software are going to have to make it available to other people for licensing. Why is this new structure potentially a bad thing?
posted by cCranium (8 comments total)
I will admit that it's fully possible that W3C Member Organisations will start patenting more software, and start forcing existing, unpatented standards to include patented (and therefore RAND license required) software, increasing the cost to have software like browsers conform to the W3C standards.

But at the same time, companies who want their proprietary software to become standard - like, say, Apple with Quicktime or Microsoft with WMP as a couple of random examples of proprietary software - will be forced by the agreement to make the license for their software available to anyone who can pay, regardless of whether or not they're members.

This, to me, is a good thing, it means that we won't be bound through standards to one particular piece of software from one particular manufacturer.

I'm apparently missing something, and I can't figure out what that something is.
posted by cCranium at 6:37 AM on October 2, 2001

I'm at a loss to say why this is bad as well. If I had a jingoistic bone in my body, I might say because then terrorists could use it.
posted by holycola at 6:48 AM on October 2, 2001

The bad part is that it will be very difficult to write free software to implement the W3 standards. "Reasonable" licensing means different things to different people.
posted by smackfu at 7:19 AM on October 2, 2001

"Anyone who can pay" doesn't include me. Therefore, I am now locked out of web standards.

Simple enough?

posted by Mars Saxman at 7:32 AM on October 2, 2001

This is bad because it will mean (for example) that I, as a freeware developer, will be unable to implement future W3C "standards".

Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory means "reasonable to multinational corporations". So if an Apple patent gets into a W3C standard, Apple can reasonably demand $50,000 from me. Seems reasonable to IBM, Microsoft and Apple, but it's completely unreasonable to me (being larger than my profit for the year).

This is, IMHO, simply an attempt to murder independent web development, and get everyone into a nice tidy corral run by large corporations (the small corporations get killed too). Maybe that doesn't seem like such a bad thing to everyone here, but you probably rely on our software a lot more than you think you do. Just because your UI is owned by MS doesn't mean we don't run your infrastructure.
posted by aramaic at 7:33 AM on October 2, 2001

I appreciate the explanations, things are starting to make more sense for me. I'm sorry in advance for the long post.

I think I don't understand where people are seeing indications that currently unlicensed or Royalty-Free standards are going to moved to RAND licensing structures? In fact, in the overview they explicitly state that this isn't their intention.

"In developing a new patent policy for W3C Activities, our goal is to affirm the Web community's longstanding preference for Recommendations that can be implemented on a royalty-free (RF) basis."

Yes, there's a great deal of corporate influence, I'm not denying that, but the Internet so far has been built on open standards, and I can't fathom protocols like HTTP, FTP or any others being changed from a public to a closed, royalty-based license.

In fact, I see more protocols being made available to more people. True, not so much independant developers who can't afford to pay for licensing, but right now you can't officially license the AIM protocol to develop on anyway.

Sure, you can reverse engineer it, and keep your hacks up to date as they throw in checks, but no matter what you do you cannot create an official third-party AIM client.

The intent that I see in this document is to make closed, proprietary licenses like the AIM protocol impossible. Yes, to get an actual official third-party AIM client you'd have to pay out far more digits than I'll ever have available to me, but I'm willing to bet it'll be significantly less then if I were to try and license AIM's protocol now.

I think I'm beginning to understand though. I didn't see anywhere in the document a codified, contract-style agreement to ensure that existing royalty-free standards remain that way, and that definitely leaves the door open for abuse.

As a simple for instance, could they make HTML 4.2 Strict require license payments to use?
posted by cCranium at 7:53 AM on October 2, 2001

I do dislike that companies have to explicitly opt-out of RAND licensing. I think that if they want to get their patent incorporated into a standard they should be forced to push for and argue that they deserve licensing fees.
posted by cCranium at 8:01 AM on October 2, 2001

Okay, I've been reading many of the comments, and I'm beginning to understand some things.

I think the real problem with the proposal is that they don't in any way codify the way in which they decide to incorporating a RAND licensed patent into the standards.

Software patents exist. It sucks, and I still don't shop at Amazon because of it, but they do and we're going to have to work with them.

I think that this proposal is a poorly-handled attempt by the W3C to acknowledge that reality and actually take advantage of some of the new but proprietary software on the market.

In my opinion they need to explicitly make RAND licensed patents the ultimate last resort. If two technical solutions exist, one of which is patented and has licensing fees and one of which does not have licensing fees - patented or otherwise - then they must make it a rule to take the royalty-free option.

If there is only a royalty-generating solution available, they need to make an call for options early on in the process and give other software solutions a chance to be developed.

They need to ensure that the RAND license is compatible with at least the BSD license, though resolving it with GNU would likely be impossible, since I doubt MS, Apple or any other big-ass corporation is going to open their code.

But it's still important that some way to work with the large companies is established and codified. I think it's pretty poor timing, and I think it's extremely sucky that they had to have the community say "Hey, wait a second, we weren't paying attention because a war was starting, hold up a bit 'til we figure this out!" but at the same time, the proposal has been in the works for a while, I wouldn't be terribly surprised to find that most W3C members weren't thinking about it now either.

I think they need to find a few more W3C Members who aren't employees of HP, Apple or MS to have a voice in the draft writing.

But I don't think what they're doing is inherently evil. Some kind of common ground between the free and open web and the closed and commercial web needs to be established and the two have to be able to work together if we don't want the Internet explicitly segregated into two disting networks.

Unless someone actually wants to continue the conversation, I'll just shut up now.
posted by cCranium at 11:09 AM on October 2, 2001

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