20 November 2010

Tim BL: Open Standards Must be Royalty-Free

Yesterday I went along to the launch of the next stage of the UK government's open data initiative, which involved releasing information about all expenditure greater than £25,000 (I'll be writing more about this next week). I realised that this was a rather more important event than I had initially thought when I found myself sitting one seat away from Sir Tim Berners-Lee (and the intervening seat was occupied by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.)

Sir Tim came across as a rather archetypal professor in his short presentation: knowledgeable and passionate, but slightly unworldly. I get the impression that even after 20 years he's still not really reconciled to his fame, or to the routine expectation that he will stand up and talk in front of big crowds of people.

He seems much happier with the written word, as evidence by his excellent recent essay in the Scientific American, called "Long Live the Web". It's a powerful defence of the centrality of the Web to our modern way of life, and of the key elements that make it work so well. Indeed, I think it rates as one of the best such piece I've read, written by someone uniquely well-placed to make the case.

But I want to focus on just one aspect here, because I think it's significant that Berners-Lee spends so much time on it. It's also timely, because it concerns an area that is under great pressure currently: truly open standards. Here's what Berners-Lee writes on the subject:

The basic Web technologies that individuals and companies need to develop powerful services must be available for free, with no royalties. Amazon.com, for example, grew into a huge online bookstore, then music store, then store for all kinds of goods because it had open, free access to the technical standards on which the Web operates. Amazon, like any other Web user, could use HTML, URI and HTTP without asking anyone’s permission and without having to pay. It could also use improvements to those standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, allowing customers to fill out a virtual order form, pay online, rate the goods they had purchased, and so on.

By “open standards” I mean standards that can have any committed expert involved in the design, that have been widely reviewed as acceptable, that are available for free on the Web, and that are royalty-free (no need to pay) for developers and users. Open, royalty-free standards that are easy to use create the diverse richness of Web sites, from the big names such as Amazon, Craigslist and Wikipedia to obscure blogs written by adult hobbyists and to homegrown videos posted by teenagers.

Openness also means you can build your own Web site or company without anyone’s approval. When the Web began, I did not have to obtain permission or pay royalties to use the Internet’s own open standards, such as the well-known transmission control protocol (TCP) and Internet protocol (IP). Similarly, the Web Consortium’s royalty-free patent policy says that the companies, universities and individuals who contribute to the development of a standard must agree they will not charge royalties to anyone who may use the standard.

There's nothing radical or new there: after all, as he says, the W3C specifies that all its standards must be royalty-free. But it's a useful re-statement of that policy - and especially important at a time when many are trying to paint Royalty-Free standards as hopeless unrealistic for open standards. The Web's continuing success is the best counter-example we have to that view, and Berners-Lee's essay is a splendid reminder of that fact. Do read it.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very worthwhile attendance. p