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Standards--with a price tag

CNET's Charles Cooper cautions that the W3C is one terrible decision away from kissing goodbye the spirit of cooperation that's helped create the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee could have become one of the wealthiest people in the world had he chosen to cash in on his discovery.

After graduating from Oxford University, Berners-Lee went to work at the Geneva-based European Particle Physics Laboratory where he produced a program that a few years later germinated into something called the World Wide Web. The rest, as they say, is history.

But you won't find his name anywhere on a list of the super-rich who've benefited so handsomely from the Internet. Berners-Lee was motivated by a broader vision of the Web as a potential force for the common good--a quaint and still delightful notion in the dusk of the dot-com era's demise--than by financial gain, and he bequeathed a legacy to the computer industry.

I've been thinking a lot about Berners-Lee and the spirit he represents in light of the growing controversy surrounding the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which set up shop in 1994. This consortium of companies, which sets the ground rules for competition and cooperation on the Internet, helped establish standards such as XML and HTML, which subsequently paved the way for the Web's rapid expansion.

So it was that the Internet subsequently developed--sometimes chaotically--as entrepreneurs seized upon its potential value as a communications and commerce system. These same people realized their ambitions within the context of the creation of a common, universal Web--in no small part because they weren't fettered by an agency going around and handing out exclusive rights to private interests.

The W3C acted wisely as a governance body by not setting up "standards" with patented technologies. It thus allowed future developers to build upon the work of others in a free, cooperative atmosphere. That will change if the organization adopts a proposal to move to fee-based licensing for W3C standards.

The organization, which has not yet taken a position (it has extended the original public comment period on the draft report), is getting an earful from developers.

And for good reason.

These folks, who have heretofore relied upon the body's judgment as a fair arbiter, fear they're about to get sold down the river. To be sure, software patents are increasing in tandem with the growth of the Web. The W3C finds itself under pressure from some quarters to help them by assessing so-called Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (RAND) practices for incorporating W3C software patents.

But the W3C attempt to reach a consensus is the wrong policy. What's needed is an enlightened despot who can save the organization from its own well-intentioned folly.

Suppose there's a terrific new W3C-sanctioned Web technology that's up for grabs at $20,000 a license. No problem if you're talking about a Microsoft but bad news if that approximates the size of your "IT budget."

Could be that I'm exceptionally thick, but the term "reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing" strikes me as the mother of all oxymorons. If you're a developer who can't afford the license, then I guess you can't incorporate that standard in your technology. I've tried to see the other side of the argument but I'm still at a loss to understand how any of this is going to advance the "common good."

Standards are supposed to provide a common framework that anyone can use to create products and technologies that can interoperate. In the decentralized world of the Web, this has worked like a charm. But if you shut off potential developers from contributing to this primordial cybersoup that is the Internet, the inevitable conclusion is technical stagnation.

Now that wouldn't be such a brilliant idea--or would it?

The history of the computer industry underscores just how dependent commercial suppliers of software technology are upon this sort of patent lock-in. You don't need to be a conspiracy nut to question the influence wielded by some corporate sponsors of the W3C in establishing new guidelines that would allow larger companies to benefit handsomely.

A quick count finds that four of the six people on the committee making the proposal represent companies that would do quite nicely, thank you, were this to become policy.

The committee did itself no favors by noting that "many members invest significant research effort in the development of their own intellectual property portfolios, so are concerned about protecting and benefiting from proprietary technology they have developed or acquired."

I should parenthetically offer credit where credit is due: Hewlett-Packard resigned as a co-submitter of the Web Services Description Language draft to the W3C after other authors refused to allow that proposal to remain royalty-free.

The growing suspicion is that the fix is in. If that impression takes hold and critics increasingly view it as a front organization for powerful, private interests, then the future of the W3C is in jeopardy.

Might it even fragment into warring factions? That's a worst-case scenario, but my best-case scenario isn't much better. If it opts for the RAND proposal, I fear the organization will never again recapture the same level of cooperation that until now has prevailed.

The culture of the Internet--and the W3C--is about sharing, not hoarding. That can't be restated loudly enough these days, because we're one terrible decision away from kissing that notion goodbye forever.