Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

I Swear This Blog Isn't About Elections...

...but if it were, there would be time to cover the W3C Advisory Board election. This is truly inside-baseball stuff, as most of the AB's work happens in member-only areas of the W3C website and most of what they effect is W3C process.

So why care? Because spec licensing matters, sadly.

Let me first outline my view: in an ideal world, specification language for web standards would be in the public domain or dedicated to it. The body of intellectual property that is non-copyright is fought over via an independent process, and to the extent that it accumulates in a standards organization, it should also be possible for the group of members that have contributed to take their ball and start again somewhere else.

Why does this matter? Competition.

Standards bodies should not be insulated from the pressure to try to deliver better results. There are, of course, pathologies around this; some of which are common enough to have names: "pay for play", "venue shopping", etc. But in general, to the extent that many bodies can produce substitue goods, it gives them a reason to differentiate. The concrete example here is WHATWG vs. W3C. I don't think it's controversial to assert that without the WHATWG, the current W3C would be f'd. Competition makes everyone better, even for products that are "free" for consumers and are the product of community effort.

This, then, is why it's such a terrible idea for the W3C's Advisory Committee (the people who have some power) to elect representatives to the Advisory Board (who have even more power) that are willing to take the self-interested side of the W3C against liberal licensing of specs over the competition-enabling position that liberal licensing makes everyone better off (to a first approximation).

If you are an AC rep, the time is now to quiz candidates on this point. If you truly think that the W3C is a unique community, it's important to realize that what makes it that special is a set of shared values, not a death-grip on legacy intellectual property rights. Fixating on that ownership is the fast-path to making everyone worse off; by the time it truly becomes important, it's so likely that the organization that cares about it needs competition to right the ship or get out of the way.