Intellectual Property Issues and the Web3D Consortium Standards Development
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[ Introduction ]
[ Policy Proposals for SIGGRAPH 2003 Conference ]
[ Proposal for Policy Activities at the Annual Conference ]
[ Draft Policy Statement on Broadband Internet Access ]
[ Intellectual Property Issues and the Web3D Consortium Standards Development ]
By Sandy Ressler
National Institute of Standards and Technology
and member of Board of Directors Web3D Consortium
Let's face it, Intellectual Property (IP) is a royal pain but seems to be
necessary. First, note that the opinions expressed here are solely the
author's and do not in any way represent the author's employer or the Web3D
Consortium. In addition, any mention of commercial products or companies is
not meant as an implied endorsement by the author or his employer.
In particular let's examine the role of IP issues as they effect standards
development and subsequently the deployment of products which support the
standard. The purpose of this article is to highlight some pitfalls when
considering the inclusion of IP in formal standards and to discuss these
issues in the context of one organization's (Web3D Consortium) history as
viewed by an inside participant.
Some Brief History
The Web3D Consortium (originally known as the VRML Consortium) is the
organization responsible for shepherding the VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling
Language) standard through the ISO standards-making process. Many people
(the "VRML community") were responsible for the development of VRML.
Significantly, Silicon Graphics (SGI) put forward Open Inventor as a file
format to serve as the basis of VRML,. Open Inventor was selected after an
RFP process, . For an excellent history see "The Development of the VRML 97
International Standard by Rikk Carey, George Carson and Richard F. Puk
(http://www.gscassociates.com/pubs/VRML_P1C.html) SGI's donation of Open
Inventor IP was a major accelerator to VRML's development. Conversely SGI's
ownership of IP (patents) for user interface aspects of CosmoPlayer (SGI's
VRML Browser) was a stumbling block to the release of CosmoPlayer source
into any type of Open Source licensing after SGI sold off it's interest in
it's web graphics division (CosmoSoftware...RIP).
Recently X3D, the next generation web graphics standard, was forwarded to
ISO for balloting as an FCD (Final Committee Draft). This is almost the
final stage before completion as an ISO standard. X3D uses XML to encode the
VRML scene graph and more importantly brings the power of the whole family
of XML standards to bear on web based 3D graphics. Significantly there are
no IP encumbrances in X3D.
The Web3D Consortium has consistently held to a rigorous policy of requiring
contributors of technology to declare any potential IP encumbrances up
front. Recently the W3C has gone through a lengthy process of debate and
review and moved farther towards openness with a "Royalty-Free Patent
Policy". During over a year of contentious debate the W3C considered making
a major shift in policy by adopting a RAND (Reasonable And Non
Discriminatory) patent framework. This approach was rejected in favor of a
simpler more open framework. It is instructive to read the minutes from
meetings of these discussions; for an example see W3C Working Draft of
the work in progress at:
If the RAND policy had been adopted it would have opened up the possibility
that patented technology could be part of official W3C standards and that
licensees would have to pay. The Web3D Consortium officially (see
http://web3d.org/aboutus/ipr.html) has a RAND policy but has yet to include
any patented technology into its standards. (Note that W3C standards are
called recommendations and do not have the legal imprimatur of ISO
standards, although they are widely used.)
What is a Standard Anyway?
Strict IP policies that hold technologies close to the source may at first
sound quite fair. Businesses invest resources and deserve to recoup their
costs. Standards, however, are not products. Let's take a small step back
and look at exactly what it is that standards organizations are trying to
accomplish and what a standard is.
What is the purpose of a standard and why do companies and individuals
expend their resources to participate in standards development?
Individuals, not affiliated with large companies often participate in
standards development for three reasons: a desire to contribute to the
technical community, to participate in a project larger than an individual
can do alone, and for the "fame". These are quite similar to the motivations
expressed by people who participate in Open Source projects.
Companies send people to participate for business reasons that include
getting a step ahead of the competition and making sure that technology
moves in a direction compatible with corporate directions. If a company can
get its IP included as part of a formal standard, all the better (from the
corporate point of view).
Standards, generally, are specifications of open technologies. They are
meant to help build an infrastructure upon which industries can thrive. The
incorporation of company specific IP is clearly an impediment to the open
nature of an infrastructure. Of course, infrastructure does not have to be
open, it can be company specific, resulting in a monopoly or hegemony.
History clearly shows that the more open an infrastructure the more likely
it will be adopted. The open nature of networking standards such as TCP/IP
and others resulted in the creation of the Internet. And the blossoming of
the world wide web followed from the open nature of the http protocol and
Conversely, look at the electronic book industry; it barely exists and a
balkanized set of proprietary standards has prevented a large amount of
content from being put into place. An interesting counter example is the
near universal ubiquity of Macromedia's Flash and Adobe's PDF.
Both of these formats met a consumer need and there was no standard to fill
the functionality vacuum. SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is the evolving W3C
standard that is playing in the same domain as Flash, but in my opinion,
isn't a potential threat to Flash. Flash is a fabulous authoring tool and
SWF is the Flash file format. In the ideal world one might see Flash
continuing with SVG taking over as the file format. The advantage to a
company like Macromedia would be the likelihood of more 3rd party products
that can manipulate SVG increasing the value of the Flash authoring tool and
broadening its appeal.
Finally standards have longevity and are suitable for archival storage.
Standards are not subject to the financial misfortunes of companies. No
matter who disappears or goes bankrupt, HTML, XML and X3D will remain viable
specifications. Archival storage is incredibly important.
An example of maintaining a hard line against the inclusion of patented
technologies were the events that occurred approximately four years ago with
the submission by IBM of a geometry compression technology for VRML. IBM
responded to a Request for Proposals from the VRML Consortium. One of the
missing elements of VRML and X3D is the lack of a good quality geometry
compression technology. IBM submitted a good technology that met the
consortium's technical requirements; however the technology was patented and
ultimately the two organizations never came to any type of agreement on how
to include the technology in the standard. IBM in no way shoulders any blame
for this; expectations for both sides were not clearly expressed up front.
When companies invest in technologies and obtain patents, as they should to
satisfy their shareholders, they quite naturally expect to recoup some of
their investments. However inclusion of their patented technology into an
international standard could bring the companies a longer term benefit than
simply a licensing deal. Inclusion of patented technology with royalty free
terms would allow companies to have their technology included as part of an
infrastructure and receive the "blessing" of the standards making
organization, benefiting the company and the public.
The MPEG-4 Issue
One of the most difficult areas the Web3D Consortium has had to deal with is
in its relationship with another ISO committee, the group developing MPEG
(Motion Picture Experts Group). MPEG-4 is the next generation of video
compression and distribution standards that have come from the phenomenally
successful MPEG committee. The MPEG group has been responsible for MP3,
which has revolutionized the music industry, and MPEG-2 which has made DVDs
the most rapidly diffused technology in the history of consumer electronics.
Clearly MPEG has had an immensely positive impact on the economy. MPEG,
unlike VRML, contains many patented technologies.
There is in fact a company, MPEG LA (MPEG License Authority
http://www.mpegla.com/), whose business is to license and organize the
patents inside the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 standards. Make no mistake; this is
legally very complicated stuff. The MPEG-4 Visual Patent Portfolio (as of
Jan 1, 2003) contains 95 patents (in multiple countries) for 47
technologies. In 2002 MPEG-LA formulated a licensing policy for MPEG-4 which
includes broadcast fees which caused a great deal of controversy (see
"Anger greets MPEG-4 licensing scheme"
http://www.eetimes.com/sys/news/OEG20020131S0061 ). Key contributors to the
MPEG-4 standard, notably Apple and Sun Microsystems, vehemently objected to
the policy but now everything seems to be sorted out. However, the long
delay in formulating a licensing policy (nearly 2 years), left a very bad
taste in the mouths of developers (see "Licensing decision ends MPEG-4
tiff": http://news.com.com/2100-1023-944051.html ) . There is currently an effort
in a joint ITU/ISO group to develop a royalty free baseline for video, as a
response to these problems (see "Terms of Reference for Joint Video Team
http://www.itu.int/ITU-T/studygroups/com16/jvt/JVTToR.pdf. It remains to be
seen if the IP issues have been resolved enough to make MPEG-4 a success or
Going back to the issue of the Web3D Consortium, one might rightly ask what
does video have to do with 3D graphics? As it turns out MPEG-4 also contains
the ability to represent a 3D scene graph and it can represent content that
places video on 3D surfaces, which should enable novel content. The original
MPEG-4 3D scene graph was contributed to MPEG-4 from the Web3D Consortium,
and is essentially the key Nodes (a node is the primary data structure in
VRML files) of VRML. One issue the Web3D Consortium is concerned about is
that MPEG-4 not simply take the VRML nodes, change the fields a little and
then have someone slap a patent on it. This has not happened yet; however
it is a concern. In addition some members of the Web3D Consortium are afraid
to even look at the MPEG-4 documents out of concern that they will be
legally "tainted" (have proprietary knowledge) which could potentially
subject them and the VRML/X3D standards to legal action. All things
considered it's an ugly situation. There is however some hope. One good
point of intersection and for potential interoperability is via one portion
of MPEG-4 called XMT. XMT is an XML encoding of BIFS (BInary Format for
Scenes). There remains the potential for the creation of translators, via
XSLT, to convert between X3D and XMT. Of course the underlying
representations must be semantically compatible for this to work and while
there is much in common, there has also been some divergence. If the
marketplace demands some interoperability then it does seem likely that
useful tools can and will be built.
The path ahead seems to be getting clearer, at least for my brain. The
inclusion of patented technology may be necessary to get the best
technology. Standards however are not simply about codifying the best
Technology; they are about creating enabling infrastructures. The open
nature of standards is even more valuable than producing the best
technology. In addition it is the customer's requirements and desire to use
the standard, or not, that is the final arbiter. Open, royalty-free
standards are the best approach to enabling infrastructures. In the long run
this approach results in technology that has the potential for being widely
adopted. It is the adoption and wide use of a standard that makes money for
business not the inclusion of encumbered technologies.