W3C Overview and Summary of W3C Patent Policy

This is a summary of the W3C Patent Policy. The policy governs the handling of patents in the process of producing Web standards. The goal of the patent policy is to enable continued innovation and widespread adoption of Web standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium.

This is a non-normative summary of the 5 February 2004 W3C Patent Policy. That document is the only authoritative statement of the W3C Patent Policy. The sole purpose of this document is to provide a more accessible summary and explanation of the complete policy. As a summary, some important details are omitted and many provisions are simplified for the sake of basic understanding.

The public and W3C Members are invited to send comments on this document to the www-patentpolicy-comment@w3.org mailing list (public archive).

1. Background

In the early years of W3C's work on Web standards, innovation arose out of a combination of community-wide collaboration on open standards and fierce competition in implementation of those standards. Patents were not initially identified as a barrier to innovation or interoperability because no one was aware of any patent claims asserted to block standards-based interoperability. However, as the Web became more commercially prominent and the number of software and business process patents increased, some patent holders sought to require license payments as a condition of implementing Web standards. In some cases, these patent holders had also participated in the development of those standards. Based on its experience, the W3C community came to the conclusion that it is essential to have a clear patent policy governing standards development. The policy W3C has adopted was designed to assure the continuation of the fundamental dynamics of innovation and interoperability that made the Web successful.

The W3C Patent Policy contains a series of provisions designed to:

  1. facilitate the development of W3C Recommendations by W3C Working Groups;
  2. promote the widespread implementation of those Recommendations;
  3. address issues related to patents that arise during and after the development of a Recommendation.

2. How the Policy Facilitates Work

The first effect of the policy is to set expectations about W3C's licensing goals: the goal of each W3C Working Group is to produce a Recommendation that is not only technically sound, but that can be implemented according to the W3C Royalty-Free License requirements. Note that there is no "W3C license," only conditions a license must meet in order to satisfy the policy.

Though Working Group participants keep this goal in mind, the policy is designed to enable them to concentrate on technical design without worrying about patents at every step. The policy establishes up front that:

  1. By virtue of participating in a Working Group, the participating organization formally commits to the W3C Royalty-Free License requirements for patents found to be "essential" to the Recommendation. An "essential claim" is one that would necessarily be infringed by an implementer of the Recommendation; in other contexts this may be called a blocking patent.
  2. Working Group participants are not required to disclosure known patents as long as the participating organization commits to licensing those patents according to the W3C Royalty-Free License requirements.

Thus, as long as no patents are brought to the attention of the Working Group, the group can concentrate on technical issues. The policy does not encourage W3C to stick its collective head in the sand, however. The policy requires public disclosure of patents and patent applications by W3C Participants (Members, Invited Experts, and W3C Team) based on "actual knowledge" that the patent contains claims that may be essential, when Participants do not agree to the W3C Royalty-Free License requirements. No one is required to perform a portfolio search in order to satisfy the disclosure requirement.

The policy also accounts for the situation where a Working Group participant may not wish that a particular patent be subject to the W3C Royalty-Free License requirements. The policy allows participants, in certain conditions, to exclude specific patent claims from the licensing commitment (within a well-defined time limit). This has the dual effect of raising the Working Group's awareness of a possible obstacle to progress, and allowing patent holders to participate knowing that they can exclude strategic technology early in the process and still contribute to the overall effort.

3. How the Policy Promotes Implementation

The policy promotes the widespread implementation of W3C Recommendations first by making the W3C Royalty-Free License requirements clear. To qualify under the policy, a license must satisfy the following requirements (see the policy for additional details and conditions):

Thus, the policy promotes implementation of W3C Recommendations by clearly establishing licensing requirements, by ensuring that a license is available to all, and by ensuring that exclusions and disclosures are public.

4. How the Policy Addresses Exceptions

When any obstacle related to patents threatens Working Group progress, W3C launches a task force, called a "Patent Advisory Group," or PAG, to address the conflict. The policy describes the composition of a PAG, the procedures they follow to help address conflicts, and possible outcomes. The possible outcomes are:

  1. The initial concern has been resolved, enabling the Working Group to continue.
  2. The Working Group should be instructed to consider designing around the identified claims.
  3. The W3C Team should seek further information and evaluation, including and not limited to evaluation of the patents in question or the terms under which the Royalty-Free Licensing requirements may be met.
  4. The Working Group should be terminated.
  5. The Recommendation (if it has already been issued) should be rescinded.
  6. Alternative licensing terms should be considered.

If the PAG recommends that the technology be included in the Recommendation under terms that are different from W3C's stated licensing goals, the policy insists on caution by requiring several levels of review and consensus before W3C accepts those terms. This flexibility allows W3C to address the unusual case in which community consensus (including both public and W3C Member perspectives) finds that departure from the strict licensing goals is appropriate. Such departure requires the Director to find that the proposed alternative is consistent with the W3C mission, the interests of the Web community, and is clearly justified despite the expressed preference of the W3C Membership for Royalty-Free licensing.

Danny Weitzner, W3C
Ian Jacobs, W3C

Last modified: $Date: 2005/10/10 23:01:09 $.