New ISO fees on the horizon?

IT groups seek to rally opposition to proposal that would add usage royalties to widely used standards, including country codes.

Evan Hansen Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Department Editor Evan Hansen runs the Media section at CNET News.com. Before joining CNET he reported on business, technology and the law at American Lawyer Media.
Evan Hansen
4 min read
Information technology standards groups are raising warning flags over a proposal that could raise fees for commonly used industry codes, including two-letter country abbreviations, used in many commercial software products.

At stake is a tentative proposal from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to add usage royalties for several code standards, a move that opponents say could weaken standards adherence by forcing software providers to pay a fee for each ISO-compliant product they sell. The standards--ISO 3166, ISO 4217, ISO 639--cover country, currency and language codes, respectively.


What's new:
IT standards groups are rallying opposition to an ISO proposal to introduce usage royalties for widely adopted standards, including country codes.

Bottom line:
Critics say the proposal could weaken standards adherence by forcing software providers to pay a fee for each ISO-compliant product they sell. The backlash illustrates growing sensitivity in software circles over belated intellectual property claims.

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The ISO currently charges copyright royalties for the purchase and reproduction of many of its standards documents, but does not charge for access to the country-code standard. In addition, the ISO does not currently charge for use of any of its codes, for example, within a software application.

The proposal is still in the early stages, and may yet be significantly altered or shelved. Still, technology standards groups--including the International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Unicode--are rallying opposition.

"Charging (usage fees) for these codes would have a big impact on almost every commercial software product, including operating systems," said Mark Davis, president of software consortium Unicode, which is seeking to set standard character sets for disparate computing systems. "They're used in Windows, Java, Unix and XML. They're very pervasive."

Representatives of Geneva-based ISO could not immediately be reached for comment.

The backlash against the ISO's proposal illustrates growing sensitivity in software circles over belated intellectual property claims. These claims have been asserted against standards and technologies that have won widespread adoption based, at least partly, on the presumption that they were royalty-free. Prime examples include claims against the MP3 digital music format and the GIF image format, as well as The SCO Group's claims that portions of the open-source Linux operating system were lifted from its copyrighted Unix code.

Analysts said the ISO proposal flies in the face of recent trends among standards groups, where royalty-free policies have begun to gain traction. For example, the W3C earlier this year backed a policy promoting royalty-free alternatives to patented technology whenever possible.

"This move is totally at odds with the trend toward openness and the adoption of royalty-free technology, at least in the software world," said Dwight Davis, a Summit Strategies analyst.

A version of the ISO fee proposal surfaced in May, according to an Aug. 1 letter from INCITS opposing the imposition of country code and other usage fees.

"INCITS' overriding concern is that this represents a radical departure from established practice with respect to standards," a copy of the letter posted on the organization's Web site reads. "In INCITS' opinion this would constitute a strong disincentive for manufacturers, large consumers and consumer groups to develop standards within standards organizations which might adopt this process or to subsequently make use of the standards in their products and services."

Opposition to the proposal heated up this week, when the W3C sent a letter to ISO Chairman Oliver Smoot, urging the group to reconsider the fee issue at an ISO Council meeting scheduled to take place Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"These and similar codes are widely used on the Web," W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee wrote in a letter, co-signed with W3C Chief Operating Officer Steven Bratt, that was seen by CNET News.com. "In particular, the language and country codes are of direct interest to W3C and the users of W3C Recommendations in the context of HTTP, HTML and XML and various other technologies. Language and country codes currently provide a single, standard way of identifying languages (and locales) throughout the Web. Multilingual Web sites and Web pages, as well as internationalization and localization features, would be particularly affected."

The ISO is the world's reigning standards group, overseeing some 13,000 standards in nearly every aspect of industry. The group's unique standards-setting authority comes, in part, from its close relationship with governments, many of which require compliance with ISO standards--although that list excludes the United States. The group operates in different countries through national affiliates, such as the American National Standards Institute (="http: www.ansi.org="" "="">ANSI) in the United States.

ANSI representative Stacy Leistner said he was unfamiliar with the ISO fee proposal. But he said the group constantly reviews its policies and implements changes as appropriate.

"The fee structure in place has been in place for years," he said. "It's time-tested, but also one that's constantly under consideration to see if it's the right approach, and, if it's not the right approach, should we be looking at doing something different?"

The ISO's claims on the codes stem from copyrights it owns on documents that describe the standards. ISO generally does not make its standards freely available, but sells them to fund its operations. Whether those copyrights apply to the codes themselves has not yet been tested, according to opponents of the proposal.

"There has not been a detailed discussion of how they own that copyright for the codes themselves," said Martin Duerst, W3C Internationalization Activity Lead. "The copyrights may not apply to individual codes, but only to the whole collection of codes--like a dictionary, where each word is not copyrighted, but the entire collection of words and definitions is copyrighted."

Duerst said the ISO's proposal is troubling because so many other standards groups have adopted the ISO codes. For example, he said, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has largely adopted the ISO's country codes.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the many new country designations that followed, the ISO made its country code standard freely available with no usage fees.

Unicode's Davis said he believes the usage fee proposal will "die a well-deserved death." But he said it still poses a significant danger to the software industry. "It has been raised seriously, otherwise we wouldn't have flagged it as an issue."

The ISO fee proposal isn't the only ISO proposal that Unicode is fighting. The group has also sought to undo a recent ISO decision to reuse the old "cs" Czechoslovakia country code for Serbia and Montenegro--a move that Unicode argues will have significant negative ripple effects for historical data.

Although the fees proposal has been widely distributed to ISO's national affiliates and is scheduled to be discussed by the ISO on Saturday, it is still a long way from approval, Unicode's Davis said.

Regardless of the outcome of the ISO's proposal, W3C's Duerst said it highlights the importance of free and open standards.

"It's not so much a legal question as a question of standards policy," he said. "If you start asking for money for the usage, people will stop using the standard. Then...there will be chaos."