I’m with our friends at the Yale Information Society Project today for a fine conference called the Open Standards International Symposium. Eddan Katz and company have assembled a group from many of the places around the world where this issue is raging, along with representatives of many of the key industry players and stakeholders, like CDT. My notes for the Law panel are here. My focus is on the relationship between open standards and interoperability.
Microsoft has just unveiled a new commitment not to assert certain rights against people who develop code based on specifications that Microsoft has developed. It’s called the Open Specification Promise. Warning: the announcement itself, at the top of the page, is written in legalese, though probably pretty readable legalese. The FAQs make things a lot clearer for non-lawyer readers.
The upshot of this announcement is that it will hopefully turn out to be a Very Good Thing. Bravo to the lawyers and the policy people who no doubt worked very hard on it; the promise obviously reflects a huge amount of careful and open-minded thinking. The notion is that Microsoft agrees unilaterally not to come after people based on IP rights that the company holds with respect to a series of widely-used web services, such as SOAP and various of its progeny, WSDL, and so forth (all listed mid-way down the announcement page). From a geeky-lawyerly perspective, one of the things I like a lot is the fact that the requirement of availing oneself of the promise is yourself NOT to participate voluntarily in a patent infringement suit related to the same specification — commitments of this sort could help to create an anti-patent-thicket. (Maybe, down the road, this aspect of the promise might not prove to be as great as I think it could be, but for now, from here, it looks very appealing, in a detente kind of way.)
Why could this promise help? Any promise of forbearance by a huge player — where they say they won’t stand in the way of your innovating on top of the work of others — is certainly positive. More than that, such a promise that is made “irrevocably” establishes a commitment on the part of the company for the long haul. Set aside the legal enforceability of such a promise, the idea has enormous rhetorical force and would make it very hard for the company to backtrack and to go in another direction. Of course, the idea no doubt has good business judgment behind it in an era of dramatic growth in terms of the open development of web services, including those related to security and to web 2.0 apps.
Why might it not be so great? Well, I think it is a great thing, and not just because we at the Berkman Center have been looking into interoperability, with support from Microsoft and others, and learning more about how companies are taking novel steps in this sort of direction. Its limitation might take a few forms, I suppose. The promise itself has limitations — it applies to some specifications and the promise extends only to some possible IPR-related claims, of course, but that seems natural, especially with such a first step. Other possible limitations: 1) Will developers pay attention to it, and in fact believe it? 2) Will this promise itself be interoperable with other such promises? I am reminded of Prof. Lessig’s speech at Wikimania last month, when he talked about interoperable licenses. Hopefully, others will either follow this lead or help developers to understand how this meshes with other similar promises of forebearance in the marketplace. 3) I don’t know well enough whether these are the right specifications to be included in such a promise. Are there other specs that developers would like to see opened up in this fashion?