Berners-Lee: Keep the Web Royalty-Free

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Edd Dumbill

Edd Dumbill
May. 08, 2002 06:09 PM

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In his opening keynote today at the Eleventh World Wide Web Conference 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 preserved.

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 W3C.

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 important.

Edd Dumbill is co-chair of the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. He is also chair of the XTech web technology conference. Edd conceived and developed Expectnation, a hosted service for organizing and producing conferences. Edd has also been Managing Editor for, a Debian developer, and GNOME contributor. He writes a blog called Behind the Times.