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Patent flap slows multilingual domain name plan

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MINNEAPOLIS - Intellectual property claims have blindsided the Internet Engineering Task Force and could derail the group's efforts to develop a common scheme for supporting foreign-language domain names across the Internet.

Your thoughts on the patent/domain-name issue.

Creating communications protocols for internationalized domain names is one of the most significant efforts under way within the IETF, the Internet's premier standards-setting body. The IETF is under pressure from Internet users outside the U.S., who want domain names in their native languages instead of the English-language alternatives available today.

"What people want is to buy domain names with words and phrases from the real world," says John Klensin, head of the IETF's Internet Architecture Board. "This is a very tough issue. . . . Internationalizing the domain name system is the most difficult challenge we have faced since we deployed the Internet Protocol."

Indeed, the task is so tricky that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the world's country code operators agreed to wait until the IETF's development work is complete before supporting foreign-language domain names.

However, the Internet user community may have to wait longer than it expected. The IETF's Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) working group recently discovered that an Ann Arbor, Mich., start-up named a patent on Jan. 30 that appears to cover many aspects of the technical solution developed by the working group.

This solution involves converting foreign language characters into Unicode, a computer industry standard, and then encoding them in U.S. ASCII for transmission over the Internet. It creates a presentation layer to display domain names to end users in their native languages. The advantage of this approach is that it requires no changes to the DNS protocol or existing DNS servers.

Walid filed paperwork with the IETF claiming that it will seek licensing fees "based on reciprocity" if this approach is adopted in the group's final standard.

IETF officials last week asked Walid to reconsider and instead license the patent for free to all interested parties. If not, the IETF will likely scrap this approach and start over, which could make Walid's patent worthless.

IDN working group chair Marc Blanchet says he expects to hear from Walid within a month. "There are some signs that Walid may change its [intellectual property] stance," Blanchet says. "But there is no chance that the IETF will move ahead and test this patent claim."

Walid competitors likely to test the claim include and VeriSign, which is running a multilingual test bed in partnership with Walid.

Back-up plans

If Walid doesn't agree to free and open licensing, the IDN working group is prepared to move forward with one of two technical alternatives:

  • Running the Uniform Transformation Format 8 (UTF-8) - a Unicode representation - straight over the Internet, which would be confusing for end users and require revamping many protocols, including the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol and SNMP.
  • Creating a directory service on top of DNS to handle name translation and provide context for complex languages. The drawback of this solution, which Klensin proposed, is that it will take much longer to develop, debug and deploy than alternatives.

"I firmly agree with the way the IETF deals with [intellectual property] claims," says Paul Hoffman, co-author of the internationalization approach now patented by Walid.

But if Walid doesn't back off on its licensing claims, "it will be a very bad problem for everyone. We can either not do internationalized domain names, which will hurt end users because bad, proprietary solutions will exist, or we can go with UTF on the wire, which will also hurt end users."

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