Please Help Pass W3C Patent Policy
To All Members of the Free Software and Open Source Community,
For the past two years, I've been working on the W3C patent policy on
your behalf, to make it safe for Free Software to implement W3C standards.
Now, I'm worried that we could lose that fight, not because of the patent
holders, but because of our own community.
There's a long discussion below. I'm asking you to do something once you
read that discussion: Please write to <email@example.com>
and tell them something like this (please elaborate - everyone discounts
Subject: Approve of draft policy - disapprove of software patenting.
I request that W3C approve the draft patent policy, because it's a
compromise that protects the right of Open Source / Free Software
programmers to implement W3C standards.
I object to software patents, and support efforts to eliminate them
at the legislative level.
Now, to the discussion.
Three representatives of the Free Software / Open Source community:
myself, Larry Rosen of the Open Source Initiative, and Eben Moglen of
the Free Software Foundation, worked on the W3C patent policy for two
years. We spent between 1/8 and 1/4 of our time on the project for all
of that time, participating in many face-to-face meetings and conference
calls. Across the table were some companies that, I feel, wanted to
"farm" their own patents in W3C standards and would have erected
lucrative "toll-booths" to collect royalties from every implementor of
web standards. If they had their way, we would have been locked
We got you the best deal we could get. It's not everything we want,
and it can't be.
The proposed W3C patent policy grants a royalty-free right for everyone
to practice patents that are embedded in the standard by W3C members who
own those patents. It prevents "patent farming", the biggest problem
that faced us. The problem is that the right is limited - it only
applies to code that actually implements the standard. This is called a
"field-of-use" limitation. The problem for the Free Software community
is that other uses of the patent in our code would be covered by royalties.
I object to software patents entirely, and most of you do as well. Why,
then, did I (on your behalf) approve of a policy containing that
limitation, and why am I asking you to support it?
The answer is simple. Patent holders won't continue their membership
in W3C if that membership forces them to give up their patent rights
for non-standards-related applications. They will instead move their
standards-making activities to other organizations that allow them to
charge patent royalties on the standards. And we will have lost.
It comes down to what we can compel people to do, and what they won't
stand for. The patent holders want the W3C brand on their standards,
and will give up something for that. If we ask them to give up more,
they'll do without the W3C brand, and we have no way to control what
standards organization they move to. If we wish to fight software patents
outside of standards, I think our only choice is to do so at the legislative
The field-of-use limitation presents special problems regarding the GPL,
because the GPL disallows a field-of-use-limited patent license. There is a
work-around for this. The code that makes use of the patented principle
must be under the MIT license, which allows a scope-limited patent
license. That may be linked into GPL code and distributed. I'm less than
comfortable with this, but my discomfort arises from the basic injustice
of software patents. A work-around is the best we can do in this case.
FSF, by its tenets, was bound to protest the field-of-use-limitation.
I respect that protest, as it is rooted an a belief that I share - that
software patents are fundamentally wrong. However, if the Free Software /
Open Source community comes out against the W3C patent policy, and the
patent holders who want unlimited rights to charge royalties come out
against it, just who will speak for it? The result will be that W3C
will fail to give final approval to the policy, and we will not even have
the limited protection from software patents that we've won. Thus, I
have to ask you _not_ to do what FSF asks this time. Of course, this
disagreement does not diminish my respect of FSF, and I will continue
to work with them as I have on many projects for years.
Thus, I'd like you to write that email now. Thanks!
As always, please feel free to call me to discuss this at 510-526-1165
(California time) or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org .