Berners-Lee: Keep the Web Royalty-Free

by Edd Dumbill

In his opening keynote today at the Eleventh World Wide Web
in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tim Berners-Lee made a strong
appeal for the development of the web to continue unencumbered by
patent royalties.

In a talk entitled “Specs Count”, Berners-Lee
outlined how important it was that today's web technology
specifications remain open and freely implementable. He described
how accessing a web page today involved many layers of standards --
ethernet, IP, TCP, HTTP, MIME, XML, Namespaces, XHTML -- each layer
of which relies critically on the layer below. As Berners-Lee is
fond of noting, the web is “not done yet”, therefore it
is not unreasonable to imagine a future with a similar number of
layers built upon the existing ones. For that reason, it is still
highly critical that the "communal" nature of the specifications is

Berners-Lee took off his hat as W3C Director for his speech,
stressing that it was delivered as personal opinion: he was highly
pointed in his support of royalty free licensing for web
technology, a position that doesn't meet universal approval within
the consortium. The W3C has itself had a difficult journey through
issues of licensing its own standards. Reacting to a large amount
of dissent from the web and free software community, it reversed
plans to allow RAND ("reasonable and non-discriminatory") licensing
terms on its specifications. The new patent policy is that every
working group will aim to achieve royalty free licensing terms by
the time a spec reaches the final Recommendation stage at the

Outlining both the pros and cons of enforcing royalties on open
specifications, Berners-Lee speculated that if the specifications
driving the web had not been royalty-free, then none of the
900-strong audience would actually be at the conference. Enforcing
royalties discourages adoption both by the open source community,
who simply cannot pay royalties, however "reasonable", and other
companies who will shy away from the issues associated with
licensing the technology.

In closing, Berners-Lee encouraged the delegates to get involved
in the patent and licensing debate. He mentioned the effect that
the large amount of public feedback on the W3C RAND debate had had,
which included a change in W3C patent policy and the invitation to
the table of representatives from the open source world. He
encouraged continued involvement and contribution to the debate,
stressing that thoughtful contribution to the ongoing debate was

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