Two years ago, at the Eighth International World Wide Web Conference in Toronto, Tim Berners-Lee issued a warning about the proliferation of software patents. Patents, the Web pioneer said, "are getting in the way of a common, universal Web."
Unfortunately, Berners-Lees cautionary words generated little sustained attention at the time.
Now, however, the issue of patents and their effect on the Web is attracting plenty of attention, thanks to a proposal before the World Wide Web Consortium standards body to begin accepting patented, royalty-fee-generating technologies as official Internet standards.
We believe its a bad idea to introduce patented technologies into what should remain an open and interoperable Web. The W3C and like-minded organizations should be taking Berners-Lees warnings to heart and leading a charge to restrict all software patents.
The W3Cs proposed framework for accepting patented technologies could easily place open-source developers at a grave disadvantage. The W3Cs definition of what would constitute "reasonable and nondiscriminatory" royalty fees is vague. Its unclear how the organization could keep a patent holder from increasing fees once a technology was adopted as a standard.
More generally, were concerned that the U.S. Department of Commerce and its Patent and Trademark Office have, in recent years, become increasingly liberal about granting patents not only on software but also on business processes implemented in software. This is a threat not just to the openness of the Web but fundamentally to innovation. Copyrights protect the expression of intellectual processes in the form of products, in a well-established fashion that should be adequate for most technologies. Software patents, as the brouhaha at the W3C shows, only get in the way.
Microsofts Spoonful of Sugar
Microsoft has loosened its licensing screws by a turn, announcing earlier this month that its enterprise customers will have 10 more months before rolling out forced upgrades to Microsofts most recent products or choosing to rebuy their Microsoft software at full version rates later on.
Microsoft said it listened to its customers in relaxing its policy, but we suggest that the company listen a little harder. IT managers are still faced with a Hobbesian choice, especially as the costs of software rollouts and retraining continue to be high for desktop products while the benefits of upgrading are increasingly slim.