The technology in question, Resource Description Framework, is based on Extensible Markup Language (XML) and allows programmers to write software to access Web resources, such as Web page content, music files and digital photos.
The RDF standard has been endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium, which evaluates and recommends standards for Web technologies.
Vancouver-based UFIL Unified Data Technologies, a private company, claims that it owns U.S. patent 5,684,985, a "method and apparatus utilizing bond identifiers executed upon accessing of an endo-dynamic information node." The patent was awarded in November 1997.
UFIL is working with Toronto-based Patent Enforcement and Royalties Ltd. (PEARL) to enforce the claims. According to press releases on PEARL's Web site, the companies believe as many as 45 companies may be infringing on the patents.
UFIL signed up with PEARL in 1999 and hired a law firm to press the claims in 2000. But the charges did not receive much press until this week, when a developer posted a message on the W3C's Web site claiming he had received paperwork from a law firm regarding the patent.
PEARL did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The patent may also infringe on the RDF Site Summary standard, a way to describe Web content that's written in something other than HTML. RSS lets Web sites exchange information about Web site content and e-commerce data, for instance.
RSS was originally developed by Netscape Communications, now owned by AOL Time Warner. Netscape's Mozilla browser uses the technology, as do other programs.
Daniel Weitzner, technology and society domain leader at the W3C, said the consortium has not been approached directly regarding the patent issue.
"We consider it to be quite important that fundamental technology specifications such as RDF should be able to be implemented on a royalty-free basis," he said. "If anything comes to our attention that suggests that's not possible, we'll pay attention to legitimate property rights out there, but at the same time, RDF was developed in the open by a very broad range of the Web community."
The W3C has been involved in patent disputes before. It's currently debating a new policy that would allow the use of patented technologies in those standards and permit the companies that hold the patents to charge royalties for their use.
But it has taken on companies over patents claims. The consortium, with the help of its members, successfully defeated Intermind's challenge to the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) standard, which sets technical specifications so that Web browsers can communicate automatically with Web sites about privacy.