The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) began what it expects to be the final review of the proposed Royalty-Free Patent Policy. The W3C Patent Policy aims to solve a specific problem – to reduce the threat of blocking patents on key components of Web infrastructure. Both W3C Members and the general public are encouraged to participate in the review, which is scheduled to last for six weeks, ending on April 30. The W3C Director's decision on the final policy, which takes into account the full range of feedback, is expected in May 2003.

"This policy, put together by a diverse and knowledgeable group, furthers the spirit of innovation on which the Web has thrived," explained Daniel J. Weitzner, Patent Policy Working Group Chair and Leader of the W3C's Technology and Society Domain. "Thousands of hours have gone into the development of this policy, including participation of W3C Members and invited experts.

The W3C Patent Policy Working Group was launched in October 1999, after a patent claim against P3P derailed the development of that technology. Based on a legal analysis of the claim, the threat was removed, and work successfully resumed. This and other experiences raised awareness of patent issues in the W3C Membership. The Working Group was created in part to make more concrete how W3C Working Groups could successfully work on Web standards in the evolving patent climate.

"Developing policy in this complex and often contentious area is difficult," continued Weitzner. "I commend all of the participants in the Working Group for working hard to build consensus around this proposal. No single group – patent holders, open source developers or users – got everything it wanted. But with this final draft, the Working Group believes it has found a common, workable path that will encourage the widespread adoption of W3C standards across a wide range of business models, from proprietary to open source."

The primary goal of the W3C Patent Policy Working Draft is to enable W3C Recommendations to be implemented on a royalty-free basis. The policy also requires patent disclosure by W3C Members when they are aware of patents – their own or others – that may be essential to the implementation of W3C Recommendations.

In simple terms, the Patent Policy provides that:

  • All who participate in the development of a W3C Recommendation must agree to license essential claims (that is, patents that block interoperability) on a royalty-free (RF) basis.
  • Under certain circumstances, working group participants may exclude specifically identified patent claims from the Royalty-Free commitment. These exclusions are required shortly after publication of the first public Working Draft, reducing the likelihood that surprise patents will jeopardize collective Working Group efforts.
  • Patent disclosures are required from W3C Members and requested of anyone else who sees the technical drafts and has actual knowledge of patents that may be essential.
  • Patent claims not available with terms consistent with the W3C Patent Policy will be handled by a dispute resolution process.

The premise of the proposed policy is that it is in the interests of all who participate in building and using the Web – including patent holders and all others alike – to enable royalty-free implementation of Web standards. To this end, the policy doesn't require giving up one's entire patent portfolio; it concerns only those patent claims held by W3C Working Group participants that are essential to implement the specific W3C standard.
The W3C Royalty-Free license requirements are now consistent with generally recognized Open Source licensing terms. This Royalty-Free definition provides an assurance that the Recommendations themselves are truly available to all users and implementers.

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