During this morning’s keynote at OSCON, David Recordon announced the formation of the Open Web Foundation (his slides), an initiative with which I am involved, aimed at becoming something akin to a “Creative Commons for patents”, with the intention of lowering the costs and barriers to the development and adoption of open and free specifications like OpenID and OAuth.
As I expected, there’s been some healthy skepticism that usually starts with “Another foundation? Really?” or “Wait, doesn’t [insert other organization name] do this?”
I’ll let John McCrae explain:
…every grass roots effort, whether OpenID, OAuth, or something yet to be dreamt up, needs to work through a whole lot of issues to go from great idea to finalized spec that companies large and small feel comfortable implementing. In particular, large companies want to make sure that they can adopt these building blocks without fear of being sued for infringing on somebody’s intellectual property rights. Absent the creation of this new organization, we were likely to see each new effort potentially creating yet-another-foundation to tackle what is essentially a common set of requirements.
And this is essentially where we were in the OAuth process, following in the footsteps of the OpenID Foundation before us, trying to figure out for ourselves the legal and intellectual property issues that stood in the way of [a few] larger companies being able to adopt the protocol.
Now, I should point out that OAuth and OpenID are the result of somewhat unique and recent phenomena, where, due to the low cost of networked collaboration and the high value of commoditizing common protocols between web services, the OAuth protocol came together in just under a year, written by a small number of highly motivated individuals. The problem is that it’s taken nearly the same amount of time trying to developer our approach to intellectual property, despite the collective desire of the authors to let anyone freely use it! This system is clearly broken, and not just for us, but for every group that wants to provide untethered building blocks for use on the open web — especially those groups who don’t have qualified legal counsel at their disposal.
That other groups exist to remedy this issue is something that we realized and considered very seriously before embarking on our own effort. After all, we really don’t want to have to do this kind of work — indeed it often feels more like a distraction than something that actually adds value to the technology — but the reality is that clarity and understanding is actually critical once you get outside the small circle of original creators, and in that space is where our opportunity lies.
In particular, for small, independent groups to work on open specifications (n.b. not standards!) that may eventually be adopted industry-wide, there needs to be a lightweight and well-articulated path for doing the right thing™ when it comes to intellectual property that does not burden the creative process with defining scope prematurely (a process that is costly and usually takes months, greatly inhibiting community momentum!) and that also doesn’t impose high monetary fees on participation, especially when outcomes may be initially uncertain.
At the same time, the final output of these kinds of efforts should ultimately be free to be implemented by all the participants and the community at large. And rather than forcing the assignment of all related patents owned by all participants to a central foundation (as in the case of the XMPP Foundation) or getting every participant to license their patents to others (something most companies seem loathe to do without some fiscal upside), we’ve seen a trend over the past several years towards patent non-assert agreements which allow companies to maintain their IP, to not have to disclose it, and yet to allow for the free, unencumbered use of the specification.
If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is, and is a significant stumbling block for many community-driven open source and open specification projects that aim for, or have the potential for, widespread adoption. And this is where we hope the Open Web Foundation can provide specific value in creating templates for these kinds of situations and guiding folks through effective use of them, ultimately in support of a more robust, more interoperable and open web.
We do have much work ahead of us, but hopefully, if we are successful, we will reduce the overall cost to the industry of repeating this kind of work, again, in much the same way Creative Commons has done in providing license alternatives to copyright and making salient the notion that the way things are aren’t the only way they have to be.