Web Inventor Warns Of Patent Licensing Royalty Threat

W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee says he sees software patents as a serious threat to the development of open standards.

Speaking at the Emerging Technologies Conference at M.I.T. on Wednesday, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee said that royalty-free standards are key to advancing the online world.

Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), told several hundred attendees at the MIT conference that it’s “very important” that everyone involved makes sure the Web is not “tripped up by software patents.”

“If you want a good laugh, go look at patent applications,” he said, adding that companies seeking royalties for patents are “always a threat” to emerging technologies.

Companies building new network functionality should “make sure the standards on which it is based are royalty-free,” Berners-Lee said. “The best thing you can do is to get everybody to commit to whatever happens. They are not going to charge you for implementing a standard.”

All companies developing emerging technology are threatened by the prospect of patent licensing royalties, Berners-Lee said. “You could never find out what patent could possibly apply to what technology,” he said. “You could never guess what things people might have the gall to say they have patented already. It really is a universal fear.”

To address such concern, W3C, an open forum of companies and organizations chartered with adopting new Web standards–is promoting a royalty-free standards policy for patent licensing. “It is a common agreement,” Berners-Lee said. “It shows an understanding that if you are trying to build a new market, then the common standard infrastructure must be royalty-free.”

Nevertheless, getting various companies to agree on standards is difficult, Berners-Lee said. “It takes a much bigger person to look at how someone does something differently” and to agree to adopt that technology as a standard, he said.

Berners-Lee, who holds the 3Com Founders Chair at M.I.T.’s Computer, Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said the next big advance for the Internet is the Semantic Web, which he described as Web technology that will pave the way for “applications that will be connected by concepts.”

“All the information is in different places. It is just not connected,” he said.

Berners-Lee compared the Semantic Web to the process of implementing ZIP codes for the U.S. postal system. The Semantic Web will “blow away enterprise application integration,” he said. “Who knows what sort of Google will be built on top of this?”

Yet as the next generation of Web functionality is developed, a large amount of money will be at stake, raising the specter of patent licensing royalties, Berners-Lee said. “We are talking about making new markets, like building the Internet, like building e-mail … like building the Semantic Web on top of the Web and like building health-care and life-science applications on top of the Semantic Web,” he said. “These are huge problems. They are going to be huge markets.”

Berners-Lee said he’s perplexed by the fact that 3-D graphics haven’t really been exploited to create more multidimensional desktop experiences on the Web. “The standards are there. Is it because people feel queasy about 3-D?” he said.

Touching on how next-gen Web technology could be used in education, Berners-Lee said he would like to see a world of open courseware that would allow students to learn by following their “instincts and curiosity.”

However, he said, that would take a lot of work. “There is so much more to do out there,” he said.

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