Explaining the Open Web Foundation: Why a New Process?

OWFIn the next few blog posts I will try to answer questions about what the Open Web Foundation is about, what we are working on, and how you can help. This first post will answer questions about the reasons for creating a new Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) process. The views expressed here are my personal perspective and may not represent those of other people involved.

What are the guiding principles of the proposed Open Web Foundation IPR process?

The proposed IPR process is designed to maximize community involvement. Instead of designing it to resolve worse-case scenarios and edge-cases, the process focuses on community-building and participation. The process is modeled after some recent successful community specifications such as OAuth, OpenSocial, and OpenID.

These communities came together to work on a specification they were passionate about, and were able to produce results. All three communities started their work without any IPR policy or process and were able to produce at the end of the process a specification with clear IPR policies and wide adoption by small and large providers.

We need to find the right balance between two conflicting needs: enable the community to participate freely and develop specification organically, and ensure that the specifications emerging out of these communities are freely implementable and unencumbered by patents.

When such a balance is not attainable, the idea is to rule in favor of community enforcement, utilizing the tools available to it such as public relations and future exclusion of offending parties (without breaking anti-trust laws, of course). We believe that community enforcement is generally preferred to strict legal rules and requirements.

What process is used by current standards organizations?

The process is based on an upfront scope. It involves negotiating a well defined scope among all the key participants prior to any actual specification work. Many times companies write unpublished specification drafts ahead of such negotiation, using them to have a better understanding of where they want to end up.

But during the scope process such drafts are usually not shared. In reality, the negotiation process over scope is where a lot of the specification work is done. Once the detailed scope is finished, there is usually limited technical freedom, since the scope’s purpose is to limit the potential patents covered by the specification.

Why can’t the Open Web Foundation use existing IPR policies?

The decision to create a new policy and not to use the current policies established by standard bodies is based on the reality of the communities the Open Web Foundation emerged from. After years of experience with the standards bodies, we can fully appreciate the value they provide, but also the significant pitfalls they create. The reality is that they have failed to support the kind of communities and results accomplished by the OAuth, OpenSocial, and OpenID.

The two main issues with these policies are that they are strongly designed to accommodate and protect big companies, and that they usually take a very long time from idea to final specification. Other issues include complicated bureaucracy, the need for strong political allies, complicated legal documents inaccessible by most individuals, expensive fees and travel costs, and an existing body of work which in many cases creates a strong bias against new ideas.

The reality is that many new communities are voting with their feet and staying away from such bodies. They knowingly create work that is not legally protected from IPR perspective because the alternatives are just not practical.

The specifications mentioned earlier are perfect examples of work that would not have been as successful within the current processes, mostly because it would have been impossible to define the necessary scope that would have allowed them to operate within most standards bodies. Time to market has also been dramatically changed from years to months.