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W3C bows to royalty-free pressure

The World Wide Web Consortium decides to drop a controversial proposal that would have let patent holders charge royalties on technology used in Internet standards.

An Internet standards body has decided to drop a controversial proposal that would have allowed patent holders to charge royalties on technology used in Web standards.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a standards body, on Thursday released a last-call working draft of its policy on patents. In an earlier draft, the proposal allowed companies with patent rights on technology behind standards authorized by the W3C to demand royalties from companies using those standards. It now states that all members who participate in a proposed standard must agree to license any relevant patents on a royalty-free basis.

If members aren't willing to do that, the working group involved with that standard has a few options, including investigating the validity of the patents, designing around the patents, or transferring the standard to another standards organization.

The patent issue surfaced last year when the W3C floated a proposal that would have allowed companies to make relevant technology available on a "reasonable and non-discriminatory" (RAND) basis, which would let patent holders collect royalties, but not place restrictions on who could use the technology.

That proposal was an attempt to solve a sticking point in the standards process: Namely, that companies that spend serious time and money coming up with the technology behind a standard may be reluctant to give away the rights to what they consider their intellectual property.

But the RAND proposal met with fierce criticism from the public, especially from members of the free software and open-source movements.

"I felt I wanted to make sure we gave this question about RAND the most thorough possible consideration," said Daniel Weitzner, chairman of the patent policy working group at the W3C. "The real tension there was that the vast majority of the working group supports the proposition that what's clearly desirable is (a) royalty-free (policy)."

The new policy does state that companies are allowed to retain defensive use of their patents; the royalty-free aspect only applies to technologies "essential for implementing the W3C specification," the W3C said.

The last-call working draft is open to comments from the W3C membership and the public until Dec. 31. The W3C working group plans to develop a proposed recommendation in February or March, and have a final policy ready for adoption by May 2003.