Who Owns the Air, Part III

2002-09-06

I spent most of the morning wrapping my head around issues of intellectual property while putting together the next revision of an IPR policy for the Jabber Software Foundation. This IPR stuff is a tangled thicket. What I'm struggling with is how to ensure that the JSF's IPR policy purely reflects the fact that the Jabber protocol is as free as the air. In the terms of copyright law this seems to mean that the protocol exists in the public domain. And when people contribute to the protocol by means of Jabber Enhancement Proposals, we want to make sure that the enhancement doesn't pollute the public nature of the protocol. I've tried to capture all that in the (preliminary) version 0.3 of the IPR policy. But somehow I think there's still more we need to do here -- I'm just not sure what it is. I guess it's time to call in the lawyers. To that end, I emailed Lawrence Lessig, but he's awfully busy so I wouldn't expect him to reply. Well, at least we can discuss this among the members of the JSF's newly-elected Board of Directors.

For completeness, here's what I sent to Professor Lessig:

The Jabber Software Foundation, of which I am the Executive Director, is currently formulating an intellectual property rights policy. We feel it is critically important that the Jabber XML protocol remain free from all encumbrances, including any claims of ownership. Indeed, even the Jabber Software Foundation does not assert ownership over the protocol. It seems that the safest course is to make it clear that the protocol exists in the public domain, and that any proposed enhancements to the protocol are also in the public domain (the Jabber Software Foundation manages such enhancements through a process similar to that used by the IETF). It seems that this would both ensure (1) that the protocol is free and open for use by any implementer under any license, and (2) that no one could attempt to patent technologies based on the open protocol.

Do you know of any other protocols that have been explictly added to the public domain in this manner? If so, have they successfully met the two conditions described above?

BTW, while attempting to educate myself today about intellectual property matters, I came across the following quote from Thomas Jefferson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Old TJ struck the right tone there. To translate it into Jabber terms, the XML protocol used in the Jabber community is an idea, pure and simple. Documentation of that protocol can be copyrighted, as can implementations of the protocol, but the protocol itself is "expansible over all space" (Jabber Everywhere?) and is "incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation".


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal