Standardisation for the 21st century & my Christmas wish to the EPO

The European Commission is setting out to reform Europe’s standardisation system. About time, too. Standards define what things around us look and behave like, whether soft- or hardware. Standardisation in Europe is currently dominated by a small number of organisations, and they’ve mostly done their business quietly in a corner where not many people cared to look. Except the ones with a lot of money at stake, of course.

That explains why standardisation today is still a game that’s mostly played by big corporations. At the same time, much innovation is happening elsewhere, coming from individuals and small and medium-sized companies (SMEs). Their numbers are large, but they don’t really have a voice in standardisation. Where they could participate, they often lack the time, money and specialised expertise to do so.

On Monday November 22, the European Commission organised a conference on standardisation reform together with the European Patent Office. They deserve some credit for this, since they brought in a broader range of stakeholders than usual. That made their life harder, since now they’ll have to deal with a huge variety of opinions that people put before them during the event.

I was invited to speak (slides, pdf) about how standardisation affects Free Software, sharing a panel with HP’s Senior Counsel Scott Peterson. We quickly got to the discussion on the right way to license those patents that are essential for implementing a standard. We agreed that for standards concerning software interoperability, those patents need to be licensed free of royalties or restrictions.

For the benefit of the many people from the European Patent Office in the room, I included a slide on patents. This argued that patents are only one tool in a whole toolset to encourage innovation, and that they’re economically harmful for software. Scott said the night before that Free Software and standards are both areas where innovation isn’t motivated by exclusion. I couldn’t agree more.

As a bonus, our panel chair asked us towards the end of the panel whether there was anything we wanted to ask for from the EPO. So I smiled at the EPO people sitting in the first row and said: “Dear EPO, please stop granting patents on software. If you’re prepared to consider this change in policy, let’s talk.” While hardly subtle, this got me several very open and interesting conversations with those same people after the event. Maybe there really is a chance to change things for the better.

My biggest quibble is that the EC’s DG DIGIT comprehensively failed to provide Internet access in its own building. One extraordinarily helpful EC staffer (thanks! you rock!) spent a full 45 minutes trying to get me connected in many different, increasingly adventurous ways – no such luck.

On the whole, the event was very interesting and rewarding. It’s only an early step in the long process towards creating a standardisation system that’s fit for the 21st century (hey, let’s hope we’re done before the century is over), but it was a good beginning.