Progress on Web Services IPR

I am writing this from the Eclipse Board meeting. We’re at the Omni hotel in the huge Las Colinas planned development, just outside of Dallas. It is pretty scenic, and since it was a nice day I went out for a fairly long walk – about 30 minutes – at lunchtime to try to get some exercise and look around.
The area is certainly interesting, and certainly somewhat successful. But I couldn’t help comparing it to some of the “natural” waterfront communities I’ve seen, like say, San Antonio, which has a thriving riverwalk area that just sort of naturally evolved. Las Colinas seemed like it couldn’t really make up its mind whether to front the street or the water, and I often found myself alone for long stretches of the walkway along the manufactured canals and lake.
Anyway, as usual a good bit of time during the board meeting centered around IPR, which reminded me about the recent news from Microsoft, called the Open Specification Promise.
This is a very important issue, since basically it means Microsoft is saying they will not try to enforce any patents they may own in connection with 35 Web services specifications (including most of the major ones, SOAP, WSDL, WS-Security, WS-ReliableMessaging, etc. and some not yet submitted to a standards body such as WS-MEX, but strangely excluding WS-BPEL and UDDI).
In my opinion, software patents are entirely broken in the first place – and I say this even though I have two pending applications. You can basically submit anything for a software patent, and trying to defend against potential infringement is what I would call a nightmare scenario for any software company.
So it is great that Microsoft is saying they will not try to enforce their Web services patents (at least most if not all of them – impossible to know the answer here I suppose) against other implementors of those specifications. I would in fact like to see IBM say the same thing.
Intellectual property rights disputes play a large role in standardization and open source. Everyone working on open source projects is keenly aware of the possibility of inadvertently adopting code that infringes on someone’s patent.
The start of the fragmentation in the Web services specification community was when WS-Security was submitted to OASIS. Until that time all Web services specifications were at W3C. It was right around the time W3C tightened up its IPR policy while OASIS still operated on a looser policy.
In those days also Microsoft and IBM often included licensing terms and conditions on the specifications they published. Anyone who implemented one of them, WS-Addressing for example, needed a license from each of the specification authors.
They created a workshop process that included a mechanism for nonauthors to provide feedback in person or in writing on the various specifications. For the (again) purposes of maintaining a clean IPR for the specifications, anyone providing feedback had to sign an agreement relinquishing all IPR to the specification authors.
However well intentioned this was, it created a double bind for specification implementors who were not also authors – if any feedback was adopted and incorporated into a new version of the spec, the feedback submitter could end up in the position of having to pay (license terms were not disclosed) to implement his or her own idea.
To their credit when I pointed this out on the W3C email list, they went back and fixed it, changing the licensing text on their specifications. When the WS-Transactions specifications finally went into OASIS last year, the IPR terms and conditions were significantly improved. The only big remaining potential issue was around patents, and last week they cleared that up – or at least significantly improved that as well.
And recently IBM and Microsoft – albeit after a long delay – did submit WS-Policy to W3C under their strict policy. So this is great progress.
IPR issues are, by the way, also behind much of the disagreement among Java vendors with respect to how Sun is running the JCP. One bit of encouraging news here recently however was Sun’s joining SCA and the discussion there about merging SCA with JBI.
Personally, I believe that standards are not really the right area to think about when considering the IPR to patent. What’s in the specifications should be what everyone in the industry agrees needs to be standardized. Competition should be based on the implementation of the standard rather than what’s in the spec.
I also often point to the success of the World Wide Web, which I believe results in no small part from the inventor’s decision not to patent the core enabling technologies. This decision led to a very low cost of entry for participating – think how cheap it is to send email over the Internet, how cheap it is to put up a Web page, or update a Web site frequently.
On the other hand it’s interesting to think what would have happened had the Web been invented by Microsoft or IBM. Would they have sought to patent their invention? Would that have increased the cost of entry and created a barrier of adoption that would have inhibited or prevented its amazing success?
Well, at least there’s good progress recently.
For more information look here for a Microsoft blog entry with a lot of links and comments.
For the record, the Eclipse IPR policy

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