OASIS patent policy sparks boycott

Leaders in the open-source movement act against a policy OASIS had promoted as an olive branch.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
5 min read
A who's who of the open-source and free-software movements on Tuesday took aim at a leading Web services standards group, escalating pressure for mandatory royalty-free licensing policies with calls for a boycott of its specifications.

Open-source and free-software advocates including Mitchell Kapor, Lawrence Lessig, Tim O'Reilly, Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond, Lawrence Rosen, Doc Searls and Richard Stallman signed an e-mail urging the community not to implement certain specifications sent out by OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards). OASIS this month revised its patent policy in a way it claimed offers better options for open-source software development.

"We ask you to stand with us in opposition to the OASIS patent policy," states the e-mail, which was sent Tuesday morning. "Do not implement OASIS standards that aren't open. Demand that OASIS revise its policies. If you are an OASIS member, do not participate in any working group that allows encumbered standards that cannot be implemented in open-source and free software."

In an interview, one signatory said the campaign would not target individual specifications, but the organization as a whole.

"We want organizations like OASIS to develop policies so any group that wants to use an industry standard can know in advance whether or not someone's going to come along and reach into their pocketbook," said Rosen, a lawyer with Rosenlaw & Einschlag and author of "Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law."

OASIS defended its revised policy and launched a counterattack against the e-mail campaign.

"This policy from OASIS is as strong as the W3C policy in terms of specifying work to be royalty-free," said OASIS CEO Patrick Gannon in an interview. "Our policy states that standards may incorporate work that is patented, but that they have to disclose it. And in almost all cases, that results in a royalty-free license for that work."

OASIS revised its policy to specify three modes for standards work: RAND, or reasonable and nondiscriminatory licensing; RF, or royalty-free, on RAND terms; or RF on limited terms.

Gannon claimed that people who had signed the e-mail hadn't read the policy.

"Does it represent an accurate description of our policy? Absolutely not," Gannon said. "Have these people read the policy? Or are they just reacting to someone's claim? Had any of these people come to us, we would have been more than happy to open a dialogue. This isn't the best way to open a dialogue between communities, through the press."

Gannon said that even without the new policy, OASIS standards with royalties attached to them are comparatively few.

Out of 20 formalized OASIS standards, Gannon said he was not aware of any that required a royalty to implement them. Fewer than a half dozen of the 101 specifications still working their way though committee had royalties, he said.

On the firing line
The call for an OASIS boycott is the latest in a series of skirmishes between industrial interests that claim intellectual property rights and open-source and free-software advocates.

The most significant conflict to date launched in 2001 after the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) floated a proposal. The plan would have made the W3C's rules friendlier to member organizations that wanted to introduce patented technologies into standards.

The resulting row led the W3C into a highly public re-examination of its commitment to royalty-free standards. In 2003,

it produced a revised patent policy, which made it all but impossible to standardize patented technologies that bear royalties.

OASIS billed its revised policy, set to take effect April 15, as a compromise to make its system more amenable to open-source advocates. Tuesday's e-mail campaign--and particularly the noteworthiness of its signatories--indicate how its move was received.

"The intellectual property policy seems to be a sop that they threw us," said Bruce Perens, a longtime open-source advocate. "There's the option for standards to be royalty-free but there's no strong incentive."

OASIS bristled at the claim that it hadn't considered open-source developers in revising its policy. Gannon said the group had numerous members involved in open-source development that had approved the revision and that OASIS had taken special care to vet the policy with intellectual property lawyers.

Gannon suggested it was possible but unlikely that OASIS might revise its policy again anytime soon.

"We looked at the needs of the open-source community in coming up with this revision, and therefore I cannot see what else they are advocating," Gannon said. "If a group of these people want to engage in a detailed review and make additional suggestions after considering how this is implemented, then they should submit that to our staff and we'll put it before the board. We have a process for continuing revision. But it's not clear to me what other changes need to be made."

The open-source industrial complex?
The conflict between open-source and intellectual-property demands has become particularly acute now that many technology giants have embraced open-source products such as Linux.

Last week, IBM pledged $100 million for Linux support in its upcoming Workplace software, a Microsoft Office competitor, for example. IBM routinely files more software patents every year than any other company and holds more than 10,000 of them.

Last month, Big Blue extended an olive branch to open-source developers, designating 500 of those patents royalty-free. Sun Microsystems made a similar offer to certain developers, and Computer Associates followed suit last week.

When it comes to standards-setting bodies like the W3C and OASIS, standards advocates call patents unfair, in light of open-source contributions to the industry.

"We don't see why, given that the open-source community is providing the operating systems going forward for a good deal of e-business, that we should be excluded from standards," Perens said. "OASIS needs to resolve to be an open standards organization, because open source and software patents don't mix."

Defenders of RAND-tolerant standards policies say standards suffer from exclusion of royalty-bearing technologies. OASIS saw substantial new involvement by companies including Microsoft, IBM and BEA Systems after the W3C's revised patent policy sent those companies to OASIS to develop Web services standards.

Perens attacked OASIS for having become a refuge for those companies.

"There's always going to be some standards organization somewhere that accommodates people who want to have royalty-bearing patents in their standards," Perens said. "With Microsoft, it's a competitive strategy and it has no place in a standards organization. We feel that for OASIS to have any stature as a standards organization, rather than something that just panders to the patent holders, it needs a better policy."