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Free-software gadfly takes on Net group

A leader of the free-software movement is considering a move to pack the Internet Engineering Task Force with like-minded members to boost support for royalty-free standards.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em--in large numbers.

That's the logic behind free-software advocate Bruce Perens' idea to pack the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a key Internet standard body, with like-minded members in advance of the group's spring meeting in San Francisco.

"The nice thing is that the IETF is an open-enrollment organization," said Perens, a Linux developer who co-founded the Open Source Initiative, founded a group called Software in the Public Interest and helped develop the Debian version of Linux.

"The real business of the working group is carried out on a mailing list. We just need to get the free-software community better represented, which takes little more than my asking them to subscribe to this mailing list."

Perens' packing plan comes after the IETF's meeting last week in Atlanta, where among the working groups meeting face-to-face was the one recently constituted to revise and clarify the organization's policy with respect to allowing royalty-encumbered technology in its standards.

The current IETF policy permits the use of such patented technology. But as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and other standards groups reevaluate their intellectual property rights (IPR) policies, an effort has sprung up within the IETF to create a royalty-free policy.

Judging by an informal poll at the group's Atlanta meeting, that movement isn't gaining any momentum with the current membership, according to both Perens and the group's chair, Steve Bellovin.

"In fairness to people who showed up in Atlanta to discuss only this question (of the IPR policy), we polled the room," Bellovin wrote in an e-mail interview. "Not only was there no consensus to request a recharter, there was a consensus against making such a request. In other words, if that balance continues, the IETF will not change its IPR policy."

Perens' idea to shift the balance by packing the organization or the working group would be unprecedented, Bellovin said. And there was nothing in the IETF bylaws to prevent such a move.

It could, however, create a backlash against the arrivistes.

"To my knowledge, no one has ever tried to 'pack' a working group meeting," Bellovin said. "I suspect that anyone who did--be it free-software advocates or large companies--would be in for a lot of criticism. I think that large segments of the community, regardless of their opinions on IPR, would see this as an attempt to manipulate what has traditionally been one of the fairest, freest and most open standards groups on the planet."

Free-software makers and advocates have complained vociferously about the existence of patented technologies in industry standards because, by definition, free software is prevented from implementing them. Some patent defenders have sought to carve out exemptions in their licensing terms for free software, but corporations paying full price have objected to those exemptions.

Free-software advocates have until March to rally their troops to the IEFT front. The group holds its spring meeting in San Francisco from March 16 to 23, at which time it will decide whether to recharter the existing group to weigh a switch to a royalty-free policy.

Perens insists that his drive to get more free-software advocates into the IETF is not a purely Machiavellian scheme.

"I don't want to be cynical about it," Perens said. "There's a lot of room for free-software folks to be working on IETF working groups--not just the IPR committee. Thus, I'll be encouraging them to do so."

Perens credited the free-software community with having deluged the W3C with comments on the issue of intellectual property rights when it was first raised last year.