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W3C retreats from royalty policy

The standards body backs away from a proposal that would have allowed companies to demand royalties for technologies used in its standards.

An Internet standards body has retreated from a proposal that would have allowed companies to claim patent rights and demand royalties for technologies used in its standards.

The World Wide Web Consortium works with developers, software makers and others to come up with standards for the Web. Generally those standards either use publicly available technology or get the agreement of patent holders not to enforce their patents.

But in a controversial proposal made public last fall, the consortium debated whether to allow companies to charge royalty fees if their technologies are used in a standard.

That proposal met with a firestorm of criticism, particularly from devotees of the open-source and free software movements. In a reference draft being published Tuesday, the W3C has moved back to the "royalty free" standard.

"The current practice is we set the goal of producing royalty free standards but it doesn't really have a mechanism for enforcing that," said Daniel J. Weitzner, chair of the patent policy working group at the W3C. "What we're proposing in this draft is to add a legally binding commitment on the part of anyone who participates in a standard that any patents they have will be available royalty free."

The draft is not the final say on the matter. A "last call" draft will be published later this year, at which point the public and W3C members will submit comments. A final decision from the director of the W3C is hoped for by the end of the year, said W3C spokeswoman Janet Daly.

And there are still some issues to be worked out, Weitzner said.

"There is still an open question of what's going to happen in the case that we run into tech that's only available for a fee. That could happen regardless of what our policy is. We still have to sort out what happens in that exceptional case," he said.