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January 05, 2010

Collaboration between open, informal specification communities and the formal standards world: the role of the Open Web Foundation agreements

In recent years there has been considerable engagement in informal specification communities, for example oAuth and OpenID in the social web domain, and XCRI and Leap2A in the education domain. However there are ownership, licensing and patent issues for working with informal specification in a more formal setting that makes it unclear how standards bodies and specification consortia engage with informal specifications. The Open Web Foundation is developing key instruments to clarify these issues, and which will provide a solid basis on which formal and informal specification communities can collaborate in the future.

Note: This post is my position paper for a CETIS meeting on the future of interoperability specifications in education.

Open, informal specification development enables communities to rapidly prototype specification ideas without the overhead of more formal processes, and may become the method of choice for working on specifications that anticipate future requirements.

However, when it comes to working with specifications produced in this fashion, there are a number of legal and IP barriers both for adoption and for engagement in formal standardisation that need to be overcome. Broadly, these are [1] the issues of ownership of the specifications, [2] the rights and conditions of use of the specification, and [3] the status of patents related to the specifications. Without clarity on these issues it is difficult for large organisations and government agencies to adopt the specifications. Formal standards organisations also may find it difficult to build on or include informal specifications as a part of formal standards for similar reasons.

To overcome these issues the Open Web Foundation has been working on two major legal instruments to assist informal specification communities, based on the successful example of the Apache Software Foundation for enabling open source to be widely used in the commercial world.

Open Web Foundation license

The key instruments are the license agreement for specifications - the Open Web Foundation Agreement (OWFa) - and the license granted by individual contributors to specifications, the Contributor License Agreement (CLA). The first covers how others may take, implement and reuse the specification; the second clarifies the status of the engagement of community members in creating specifications.

The OWFa makes it clear to potential adopters of the specification - including standards organisations wanting to work with it - what the conditions of use are for the specification, who contributed to it, and who is granting the license. Unlike a traditional software or specification license, the OWFa is not granted by a single legal entity such as a company or foundation, but is instead signed by all the contributors to the specification. This is important as - unlike a formal standard (or consortium specification) - there is usually no single entity that can assert ownership of an informal specification such that it can grant licenses for its use. This is also where the CLA comes in.

The CLA provides an "audit trail" of contributions to informal specifications by having each contributor assert the status of the work they have put into it - it asserts both that the contribution they have made is their own work, and that they have the right to license their contributions to the specification. In some cases this is a simple personal assertion; in others it needs to assert that the person's employer has agreed that they can license their contributions to the specification.

This means that in the case of any disputes it is possible to follow the trail and find out where ownership of any IP has been asserted, and who is responsible for making the assertion. This is useful, for example, where a person engages in a specification community for one company and then moves to another, or where their employer is taken over by another company or goes bankrupt and its assets acquired by another - the CLA makes it clear that the individual had the right to grant license to their work.

Finally, there is wording in the OWFa on patent non-assertion and licensing conditions that may be useful for some standards organisations, and particularly for specification consortia. This provides a promise by the signatories not to assert Necessary Claims for implementation, and a statement granting a royalty-free license to any Necessary Claims for implementation.

The OWFa is already available for use; the CLA is still being worked on but will almost certainly be released in 2010. Even for specifications developed prior to these instruments being created it will be possible for informal specification communities to adopt them provided they have a reasonable trail of contributions.

For example, the XCRI community could offer its XCRI 1.1 specification under OWFa as all contributions to the spec are logged either in the form of event attendance lists, forum contributions, or wiki history; this means all contributors could be asked to sign a CLA, and if this is successful, an OWFa license could be offered for XCRI.

In conclusion, I believe that the OWF agreements will provide a solid basis on which to enable more formal standardisation processes to make use of informal specifications without compromising the IP and patent policies of either formal standards bodies or specification consortia. This provides an opportunity for formal standards to be created that build upon informal specifications. The terms of the OWFa may need to be looked at more carefully in cases where multiple informal specifications may be harmonized to create a standard; however by establishing, through the use of CLAs, a clear IP framework for informal specifications, the way forward in such cases is made much easier.

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