When good institutions go bad
The last few weeks have seen a dismaying upturn in the number of semi-public institutions which seem to out to make a buck rather than a contribution, risking the contributions they've alread made.
ISO has the potential to cause the largest trainwreck, with plans to require licensing fees from those who use their language codes (ISO 639), country codes (ISO 3166), and currency codes (ISO 4127). The W3C has posted a letter to ISO, noting that:
These and similar codes are widely used on the Web. In particular the language and country codes are of direct interest to W3C and the users of W3C Recommendations in the context of HTTP, HTML and XML and various other technologies. Language and country codes currently provide a single, standard way of identifying languages (and locales) throughout the Web. Multilingual Web sites and Web pages, as well as internationalization and localization features, would be particularly affected.
Any charges for the use of these standards are going to lead to fragmentation, delay in deployment, and in effect a lack of standardization. In particular, those users who depend upon multi-lingual or non-English language services will suffer.
Meanwhile, another highly-respected organization which has made substantial contributions to the Web seems to have gone fishing for loot as well. OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center, one of the lead drivers behind Dublin Core, a vocabulary at the heart of many RDF projects, is suing the Library Hotel for daring to structure a library around the Dewey Decimal System, which was created in 1874. It's a trademark case, so things like patent and copyright expiration don't apply, but it's hardly encouraging to see an organization so critical to the information infrastructures of the world - not just the Web - "seeking damages of three times the profits the hotel has made since it opened". Trademark law does require defending the trademark, sure, but this? Come on.
I've been a critic of the W3C's structure for a long time now, having doubts about the nature of vendor consortia. On these kinds of issues, however, the W3C seems to be well ahead of its peers. While the process of creating many W3C specifications may remain veiled in mystery, the specifications themselves are open for anyone to implement, free of charge - and the W3C seems intent on keeping it that way, even in the face of recent patent lunacy.
The larger problem this illustrates isn't the greedy nature of everyone, but rather the difficulties of trust in a world where organizations are underfunded and expected to scramble for dollars. Building organizations which are intended to promote the sharing of resources requires an independent source of funds. Otherwise, organizations will end up placing tolls on their results, impeding the very sharing they were set up to create.
Simon St. Laurent is an associate book editor at O'Reilly Media, Inc..