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The W3C needs to be royalty free

Hewlett-Packard's Jim Bell says the Internet standards body must adopt a patent policy that encourages innovation.

Currently a fiery debate is raging concerning whether standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) should be royalty free or whether some might require patent royalties.

The latter approach, referred to as RAND (Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory), is supported by companies such as IBM. Other companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, feel passionately that free, open, technically excellent standards have been the foundation for the Web?s success in the past, and that they will be equally fundamental in the future.

In particular, we feel that the ability to use W3C standards without charge will be essential to their quick acceptance and to their universal acceptance.

Why do we have such a strong preference for royalty-free licensing over RAND licensing for W3C standards? Patent policies for standards organizations may rationally vary based on organizations? specific circumstances and technologies, but in the case of W3C, we view the RAND licensing alternative as fundamentally flawed for reasons including the following:

• RAND distorts the standards selection process. Do you personally or does your company make selection decisions involving costs without taking price tags into account? Of course not, and neither should W3C Working Groups. The RAND approach can force a Working Group to choose between two approaches, one free and one expensive, without knowing which is which.

• RAND allows users to be ambushed and exploited. RAND allows the price for essential patent rights to be set after their use is mandated by a W3C standard. Users cannot predict their costs until too late and can find themselves at the mercy of a patent holder.

• RAND ignores the importance of open source. Open source is one of the most powerful, creative forces in computing today, and W3C patent policy should facilitate it rather than blocking it via RAND royalty fees.

• RAND?s scope of applicability at W3C is undefinable or nonexistent. Even advocates of RAND licensing concede that Web infrastructure standards should be royalty free, and that RAND licensing at W3C should be applicable only to standards above the infrastructure level. But no one has been able to draw the dividing line separating the levels. And, in any case, such a dividing line would be steadily rising over time as formerly optional capabilities become standard parts of the infrastructure.
With RAND licensing, this natural evolution could create royalty-bearing infrastructure standards, a prospect universally agreed to be unacceptable. In fact, the imprecise and moving boundary for Web infrastructure raises the question: Are all W3C standards at least potentially part of the fundamental Web infrastructure and therefore most appropriately royalty free?

• RAND is burdensome to W3C and its Members. One of the greatest challenges to W3C is being able to move at a pace commensurate with its role in the industry and with the reasonable expectations of the broader community. Issues connected with RAND licensing at W3C undeniably have already proven themselves to be an immense source of delay and wasted effort. From arguments about the licensing mode at the time of Working Group charter formation to arguments about the terms ?reasonable? and ?nondiscriminatory? long after a standard is completed, offering the option of RAND licensing adds little value to W3C standards but adds much complexity, cost and delay.

For Hewlett-Packard and many others, including the vast majority of the more than two thousand people who have written to W3C to share their views, the conclusion is clear: To enable the Web to extend its meteoric growth in capabilities, acceptance and beneficial impact, W3C standards must remain royalty free now and in the future.