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Paul Festa

Staff Writer, CNET

A who’s who of the open-source and free-software movements on Tuesday took aim at a leading Web services standards group, escalating pressure for mandatory royalty-free licensing policies with calls for a boycott of its specifications.

Open-source and free-software advocates including Mitchell Kapor, Lawrence Lessig, Tim O’Reilly, Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond, Lawrence Rosen, Doc Searls and Richard Stallman signed an e-mail urging the community not to implement certain specifications sent out by OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards). OASIS this month revised its patent policy in a way it claimed offers better options for open-source software development.

“We ask you to stand with us in opposition to the OASIS patent policy,” states the e-mail, which was sent Tuesday morning. “Do not implement OASIS standards that aren’t open. Demand that OASIS revise its policies. If you are an OASIS member, do not participate in any working group that allows encumbered standards that cannot be implemented in open-source and free software.”

In an interview, one signatory said the campaign would not target individual specifications, but the organization as a whole.

“We want organizations like OASIS to develop policies so any group that wants to use an industry standard can know in advance whether or not someone’s going to come along and reach into their pocketbook,” said Rosen, a lawyer with Rosenlaw & Einschlag and author of “Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law.”

OASIS defended its revised policy and launched a counterattack against the e-mail campaign.

“This policy from OASIS is as strong as the W3C policy in terms of specifying work to be royalty-free,” said OASIS CEO Patrick Gannon in an interview. “Our policy states that standards may incorporate work that is patented, but that they have to disclose it. And in almost all cases, that results in a royalty-free license for that work.”

OASIS revised its policy to specify three modes for standards work: RAND, or reasonable and nondiscriminatory licensing; RF, or royalty-free, on RAND terms; or RF on limited terms.

Gannon claimed that people who had signed the e-mail hadn’t read the policy.

“Does it represent an accurate description of our policy? Absolutely not,” Gannon said. “Have these people read the policy? Or are they just reacting to someone’s claim? Had any of these people come to us, we would have been more than happy to open a dialogue. This isn’t the best way to open a dialogue between communities, through the press.”

Gannon said that even without the new policy, OASIS standards with royalties attached to them are comparatively few.

Out of 20 formalized OASIS standards, Gannon said he was not aware of any that required a royalty to implement them. Fewer than a half dozen of the 101 specifications still working their way though committee had royalties, he said.

On the firing line
The call for an OASIS boycott is the latest in a series of skirmishes between industrial interests that claim intellectual property rights and open-source and free-software advocates.

The most significant conflict to date launched in 2001 after the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) floated a proposal. The plan would have made the W3C’s rules friendlier to member organizations that wanted to introduce patented technologies into standards.

The resulting row led the W3C into a highly public re-examination of its commitment to royalty-free standards. In 2003, it produced a revised patent policy, which made it all but impossible to standardize patented technologies that bear royalties.