Forking Standards and Document Licensing

There’s been quite a bit of controversy in the web standards community over the copyright licensing terms of standards specifications, and whether those terms should allow “forking”: allowing anyone to create their own specification, using the words of the original, without notice or getting explicit permission. Luis Villa, David Baron, Robin Berjon have written eloquently about this topic.

While a variety of arguments in favor of open licensing of documents have been made, what seems to be missing is a clear separation of the goals and methods of accomplishing those goals.

Developing a Policy on Forking

While some kinds of “allowing forking” are healthy; some are harmful. The “right to fork” may indeed constitute a safeguard against standards groups going awry, just as it does for open source software. The case for using the market to decide rather than arguing in committee is strong. Forking to define something new and better or different is tolerable, because the market can decide between competing standards. However, there are two primary negative consequences of forking that we need to guard against:

  1. Unnecessary proliferation of standards (“The nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from”). That is, when someone is designing a system, if there are several ways to implement something, the question becomes which one to use? If different component or subsystem designers choose different standards, then it’s harder to put together new systems that combine them. (For example, it is a problem that Russia’s train tracks are a different size than European train tracks.) Admittedly, it is hard to decide which forks are “necessary”.
  2. Confusion over which fork of the standard is intended. Forking where the new specification is called the same thing and/or uses the same code extension points without differentiation is harmful, because it increases the risk of incompatibility. A “standard” provides a standard definition of a term, and when there is a fork which doesn’t rename or recode, there can be two or more competing definitions for the same term. This situation comes with more difficulties, because the designers of one subsystem might have started with one standard and the designers of another subsystem with another, and think the two subsystems will be compatible, when in fact they are just called the same thing.

The arguments in favor of forking concentrate on asserting that allowing for (1) is a necessary evil, and that the market will correct by choosing one standard over another. However, little has been done to address (2). There are two kinds of confusion:

  1.  humans: when acquiring or building a module to work with others, people use standards as the description of the interfaces that module needs. If there are two versions of the same specification, they might not know which one was meant.
  2. automation: many interfaces use look-up tables and extension points. If an interface is forked, the same identifier can’t be used for indicating different protocols.

The property of “standard” is not inheritable; any derivative work of a standard must go through the process standardization itself to be called a Standard.

Encouraging wide citation of forking policy

The extended discussions over copyright and document license in W3C seems somewhat misdirected. Copyright by itself is a weak tool for preventing any unwanted behavior, but especially since standards group are rarely in a position to enforce copyright claims.

While some might consider trademark and patent rights as other means of discouraging (harmful) forking, these “rights” mechanisms were not designed to solve the forking problem for standards.  More practically, “enforcement” of appropriate behavior will depend primarily on community action to accept or reject implementors who don’t play nice according to expected norms. At the same time, we need to make sure the trailblazers are not at risk.

Copyright can be used to help establish expected norms

To make this work, it is important to work toward a community consensus on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable forking, and publish it; for example, a W3C Recommendation “Forking W3C Specifications” might include some of the points raised above. Even when standards specifications are made available with a license that allows forking (e.g. the Creative Commons CC-by license), the license statement could also be accompanied by a notice that pointed to the policy on forking.

Of course this wouldn’t legally prevent individuals and groups from making forks, but hopefully would discourage harmful misuse, while still encouraging innovation.
Dave McAllister, Director of Open Source
Larry Masinter, Principal Scientist

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