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Patent issues could stymie Web standard

The World Wide Web Consortium is close to finalizing the new SOAP specification, but intellectual property issues concerning two companies could throw a wrench in the process.

A Web standards body is close to approving a key Web services specification, but concerns about patent rights may hold up the process.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a standards body that oversees some Internet protocols, is nearing completion on the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) 1.2, one of the four key Web services specifications. SOAP essentially allows programs running on different computers to communicate with one another.

A W3C working group has been working on the SOAP specification for about two years. Part of that time has been spent addressing 393 issues brought to its attention by members and industry professionals. That number is now down to just 11, said Janet Daly, a W3C spokeswoman.

Assuming the final 11 issues can be resolved easily, Daly said, the specification should be ready for final approval in the beginning of 2003. But intellectual property issues may put a wrench in the works.

According to documents on the working group's Web site two companies, WebMethods and Epicentric, a subsidiary of Vignette, said they may have patents that cover the technology being used in the SOAP 1.2 standard.

That would not necessarily pose a problem. But both companies have stated they would only grant rights to use the technology under "reasonable and nondiscriminatory" terms, meaning they reserve the right to charge royalties to companies that want to use the SOAP 1.2 standard.

The working group's charter, however, calls for all technology used in the standard to be licensed royalty-free.

Neither WebMethods nor Epicentric was immediately available for comment.

In conflicts like these, Daly said, the W3C usually tries to convince the members to make the technology available on a royalty-free basis. But the working group may need to set up a patent advisory group, where representatives from every organization in the group try to figure out a way around the problem. That could stretch the approval process out 60 days or more, Daly said.

There are three other Web services specifications beyond SOAP: Web Services Description Language (WSDL), which is used to define Web services and describe how to access them; Universal Directory Discovery and Integration (UDDI), which allows Web services to be found; and Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is used to describe information transmitted in electronic documents.