W3C at the Forefront of Open Access

by Rigo Wenning

The Web can be seen as one of the preconditions of today's discussion about Open Access. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), including its Members, is very conscious about this role of the Web. To give an example, the W3C, from its earliest days, has used Web technologies to provide full access to the W3C Recommendations and Working Drafts and much other information on the W3C's Web site.

All W3C Recommendations and normative documents are published under the very liberal W3C document license. This license allows people to re-use the document content in all kinds of innovative ways, on condition that the initial Recommendation and its attribution to W3C are not altered. The limitation related to document changes is due to the normative character of the W3C Recommendations, since they represent a consensus of the community. The prohibition to change and create derivatives of the W3C Recommendation protects this consensus. W3C additionally has a liberal software license that allows the W3C open source code to be altered, contributed to, and incorporated in either open-source or commercial software.

Patent Policy
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.

After three years of lengthy and controversial discussions, in 2004 the W3C adopted its Patent Policy, a landmark innovation in the area of standardization. While most Specification Developing Organizations (SDO's) have adopted a RAND-scheme (reasonable and non-discriminatory terms), W3C was the first SDO to adopt a regime of royalty free and non-discriminatory licensing terms for every patent essential to the implementation of a W3C Recommendation. This was a major step to help W3C Recommendations to get the most widespread use and recognition. While the innovative Patent Policy created several issues in business procedures for W3C as well as for its Members, today we are already seeing other SDOs copy the model and numerous discussions sparking up elsewhere.

Accountability to the Public
The W3C is also conscious that not every individual can contribute by becoming a W3C Member. Therefore the W3C has developed a very open process to accommodate views from the public at large. Those contributions and comments have to be taken into account by W3C Working Groups. The Working Groups are expected to respond to comments, and document decisions about whether they accept the suggestion or not. The simplicity of the Working Groups' email-based feedback approach is contributing greatly to the reach of W3C technologies. Those comments and the responses are publicly archived for accountability and for information. Furthermore, today W3C technologies can be used in all kinds of languages, written vertically or from right to left, such as in Chinese or Arabic. This aim to include every community makes the scale of the Web truly global.

Please contact:
Rigo Wenning, W3C
E-mail: rigo.wenning@w3.org