2011-09-14

Standards: now even more to choose from?

Two years ago, in my first post to Questionmark's blog (please note that I work for Questionmark) I wrote about licensing for open standards, speculating that the standards community might benefit by modelling itself on the open source community where standard licenses have emerged to simplify the legal landscape for developers.

Selecting a license isn't the only legal problem that faces an open source development community. How do I know that the code contributed to an open source project is really open? This is the software development world's version of dealing in stolen goods. If the true copyright holder doesn't consent to having their code contributed to the project then there will be trouble ahead.

This well known problem in the world of open source software has parallels in the world of open standards too. In fact, the use of the term submarine patent implies a more deliberate process of hiding IPR for the purpose of suing people later and submarine patents are certainly feared by people developing and implementing standards. [1]

If I want to start an open source project there is a wide range of hosting sites that I can use to help with the basic tools: source code repository, discussion group, wiki, download/distribution service, etc. In most cases, these tools provide a very fast way to get going with very little oversight. Contrast these basic services with the Apache Software Foundation. It is a bit slower to get going but in addition to the collaboration tools it also provides a basic legal framework within which the project will work.

Now imagine what this might look like for standards organizations and you'll have something very similar to Community Groups as launched last month by the W3C: W3C Launches Agile Track to Speed Web Innovation

It is early days for this type of service but a few things are clear from the press release. Firstly, if your community is international (and perhaps even if it isn't) this process may provide a better standards track than working with a national body (e.g., ANSI in the US or BSI in the UK). W3C claim that they can provide a clear path towards full standardization by ISO/IEC.

Secondly, W3C appears open to providing this part of their process as a service to specialist industry players. I've worked with a number of consortia in the Learning, Education and Training space and I've seen the amount of time that has been spent creating IPR frameworks. Being able to outsource this part of a consortium's work to W3C would undoubtedly have saved time (and in some cases significantly increased credibility). I'd encourage any specialist body to look seriously at this as an opportunity.

This type of specialization of function lowers the barriers to entry for new projects too. It would be naive to think that this initiative will not make it easier to create new specialist consortia to rival existing players. As a result, consumers of technical standards will probably have even more to choose from in future.

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