Warming up to open source

Web services standards group OASIS offers trio of patent policy options, but open-source purists say it's still too patent-friendly.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
An influential Web services standards group revised its patent policy to accommodate but not require royalty-free licenses, signaling incremental gains for open-source developers.

OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) on Monday released its updated intellectual property policy, which will take effect April 15.

In a statement, OASIS said it made the revision "to enhance support for open standards development."


What's new:
OASIS has revised its patent policy to accommodate but not require royalty-free licenses, meaning a friendlier environment for open-source developers.

Bottom line:
Open-source purists say the revision only goes so far and still gives working groups the option of shutting open source out of a standard.

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That, OASIS members said, meant a friendlier environment for open-source developers, whose licenses prevent them from using technologies that have royalties attached.

But the overture to open-source developers only goes so far, making royalty-free (RF) licensing of patents in standards an option next to the existing status quo, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (RAND) licensing of those patents.

"OASIS isn't an open-source organization," said Jim Hughes, Hewlett-Packard's software standards chief and chairman of the OASIS board of directors. "We are a standards organization. We could have made the decision to be royalty-free, but we decided not to do that. We historically have been centered on the RAND option. The new policy is a better option for our members so that they have choices."

Since the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) went through a highly public battle that ended in a virtual patent ban, other standards organizations have felt the heat to reconsider the use of royalty-encumbered technologies in their protocols.

The Internet Engineering Task Force in 2003 beat back an effort to sideline patented technologies in its publications.

Now OASIS has enumerated three modes its working groups can work under: RAND, RF on RAND Terms, or RF on Limited Terms.

The policy met with a lukewarm response from open-source advocates.

"I'm pleased that royalty-free is at least an option, but would be more comfortable if it was the default," said Bruce Perens, a prominent open-source advocate. The new policy "still gives working groups the option of shutting open source out of a standard."

But at least one OASIS member who called himself an advocate of royalty-free standards hailed the policy as a step forward.

"This is a very contentious issue, and OASIS needed to move in this direction," said OASIS member and University of California adjunct professor Robert Glushko. "I want there to be royalty-free standards, but I'm a realist and I realize that there are some standards that would be difficult to develop if RF were the only option."

Glushko, who is pursuing a seat on the OASIS board of

directors to fill a seat vacated by Intel in November, credited the W3C's patent policy revision with OASIS' decision to revisit its own policy.

"The W3C made a very clear statement of principle that it wanted all standards to be RF, and that was really capturing a growing sentiment about what Web-based standards should be like," Glushko said. "OASIS tends to work higher up on the stack where you could argue that maybe there is some justification for standards that are not royalty-free."

Perhaps more important than the three newly designated patent modes is the new disclosure rule. Rules governing how contributors disclose patents potentially relevant to a standard under construction are of paramount importance to OASIS because the nonprofit corporation is made up of corporate, individual and academic members, Glushko said.

"We don't have an architecture board or a Tim Berners-Lee who says you do this. It's driven by the membership."
--Jim Hughes, chairman, OASIS board

"OASIS is trying to move in a direction to accommodate a more diverse constituency," Glushko said. "Things were particularly problematic about disclosure, and there's a lot of language trying to deal with having effective disclosure. What we have now is a pretty significant shift for OASIS."

OASIS maintains more than 60 committees working on various parts of 19 different standards having to do with Web services.

The Web services stack, as a whole, has come under withering criticism by developers including standards expert Tim Bray, who has called it "bloated, opaque and insanely complex."

Hughes said complexity was in the eyes of the beholder--and under the control of OASIS' members.

"Is the stack complex? Yes, obviously," Hughes acknowledged. "There are lots of bits and pieces to it both within and without OASIS. Does it take work to understand? Yes it does. But that's not too different from any emerging technology that's complex. We don't have an architecture board or a (W3C Director) Tim Berners-Lee who says you do this. It's driven by the membership. And we think this new policy helps these members address those concerns."

Perens urged fellow open-source advocates to take advantage of the new OASIS policy to exercise vigilance as new committees formed and chose their patent mode.

"I believe that open-source groups should watch working group formation at OASIS and should make strong statements in support of working groups' choosing the royalty-free option," Perens said. "Pretty much every OASIS standard would be one that open source can implement, and there's no good reason to shut us out."