Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rushing Towards Cloudy Standards?

I have become recently worried about the rising popularity of informal standards these days. Informality is something that has been rapidly emerging in the rush towards cloud computing. The rush to develop new protocols is often quite important and is being done out of critical and urgent need. Many of these groups have achieved early success. Yet they remain afraid that getting the legal aspects of their work done is somehow a risk to success and isn't needed. Yet why undertake the work, if the outcome will be compromised by unclear rights for the users of the specification or its authors?

Andy Updegrove, an intellectual property lawyer, writes in a recent blog post:
The impetus for the new programs comes in part from the proliferation over the past several years of more and more ad hoc development efforts focusing on individual protocols and other Web standards. These efforts have typically been very bare bones, utilizing the same techniques employed by open source projects (indeed, they have often been launched by the same developers). In contrast to traditional standards development, such a project involved no more than a Wiki and perhaps a few additional Web pages. Not surprisingly, they have also often been launched by teams that have had little or no prior experience with the traditional standards development process, or the reasons why that process has evolved to operate in the way that it does.
Why not avoid this mess and use well proven paths to success with existing standards development organizations? What was wrong with organizations like Kantara, OASIS, the W3C, and even the IETF? The perception seems to be that these organizations are just too bureaucratic and/or too expensive. Many didn't see the value they create. Many, without cause, just felt that it was the domain of large companies and that only big companies could participate. Yet when I checked out the facts, most of these organizations support both individual and corporate memberships that are in fact very low (in the hundreds of dollars). 

Recently, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) had many of the same observations and initiated a committee to dry and develop a more agile process. Andy observes that many shunned well proven paths for a more utilitarian approach:
This utilitarian approach allowed for very rapid development, but it also meant that the resulting work product was created without the benefit of any of the supporting infrastructure, tools and protections that a traditional standards development project provides:  
  • The developers were not bound by the terms of an intellectual property rights policy, meaning that a participant with ill intent could set up a “submarine patent” trap without worrying about the legal consequences. 
  • There is no legal organization to own a trademark in the protocol to ensure that claims of compliance cannot be made when in fact a product is not compliant, thus jeopardizing the credibility of the protocol or standard. 
  • There may be no one to provide ongoing support for the effort if the participants later drift away. 
  • There is no organization to promote the work product, or to lend credibility to the result. 
  • There is no in-place pool of members to provide breadth of input to maximize the quality of the result, or to act as a springboard for broad and rapid adoption when the effort is complete. 
Andy writes, the response to this phenomenon was the formation of the Open Web Foundation. It is a good start, but OWF only partially addresses the gap between a "protocol group" and a "traditional standards organization". I have to agree.

Read Andy's blog post to get the full story.

Note: as usual, the opinions expressed are my own personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. I am not a lawyer, but do participate in several standards organizations.

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