The Web needs the best standards today to grow and thrive. Some of these new technologies are patented, and more will be as the European Patent Office is clearly moving toward software patents as I write this. However, without proper information and disclosure, Web developers are worried that a new proposed patent policy by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) could leave them defenseless in the face of a wall of flying patent bombs.
The W3C is the Internet standards body that has approved and promoted such fundamental standards as HTTP and XML. The patent policy at issue would require companies involved in the standards process to make their patents and licensing expectations related to a proposed standard explicit, while allowing enforcement of those patents if the standard is adopted.
The W3C proposal
It appears that the theory behind the proposed solution is twofold. First, companies need to make sure that the best technology is adopted for the standard, no matter where it came from or whether or not it is patented. Second, the policy would seem to add transparency to the standards process, letting developers know what to expect. This policy would allow corporations to charge reasonable and nondiscriminatory (RAND) licensing fees evenly to those developing upon the standard for commercial gain.
RAND fees are only possible when the W3C decides that the best standard is one that is already patented and when the patent holding company decides it is desirable to charge royalties to developers.
Here's the rub.
There are those in the developer and open-source community that oppose this proposal. They claim the implementation of the policy would mean the W3C's endorsement of software patents and the end of royalty-free licenses for W3C recommendations. Linux developers have also suggested W3C members created the policy so they could extort hefty licensing fees from developers at the expense of the open-source community.
This W3C proposal makes sense. Like it or not, software patents are here to stay and are going global. The W3C's proposal is the right way to deal with this reality. Let's make sure that the best standards are adopted. Like medicines, sometimes the un-patented drugs are great; but at other times, we really need the patented stuff that the doctor ordered. It all depends on what the problem is and the best way to solve it. Let's make sure that we find the right standard, not just a cheap one.
This type of policy works. Standards bodies such as the JEDEC (Joint Electronic Devices Engineering Council), the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and the ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) all have similar patent policies and have succeeded.
This policy seems to be agnostic as to company size. It does not seem to require only big companies to apply--the way I read it, any technology can be adopted, even if small companies or individual developers develop it. In today's world, where funding is increasingly difficult to get, this could be the only way for intelligent, creative and motivated developers to create a revenue stream from their own ideas and hard work. Please note, the standard does not require any fees. Therefore, the individual developer nor the company need to charge if they don't see fit.
Innovate, protect and leverage
This standards debate, however it works out, brings the issue of software patents to the fore. Never before in our recorded history has the idea become the product. Today, more than ever before, the knowledge worker has more power to develop cool, innovative ideas and products. However, these same developers have never before been so vulnerable to having the fruits of their creative genius and hard work ripped off. Hey it's just software, right?
I believe that the best way to navigate these exciting times in software is to follow the inventors of our past, like Edison, Tessla and Bell. They strove for great innovations and made sure their ideas were protected and leveraged into new innovations and financial freedom.
The new policy should work, so let's move on to find the best standards and develop the greatest Web products yet.