RDFex: Partial ontology imports
One of the overall design goals of Linked Data and the Semantic Web is vocabulary re-use. Instead of having thousands of "Person" classes, new ontologies should attempt to re-use existing Person definitions, such as those found in the FOAF namespace. This schema re-use makes it easier for Semantic Web agents to link data together, and potentially reduces the maintenance costs as it becomes possible to benefit from the whole infrastructure and community around those shared ontologies.
However, there are a couple of well-known reasons why such a re-use is not always feasible or desirable, leading to situations in which developers feel they need to reinvent the wheel. One particular problem is that the OWL construct for linking vocabularies (owl:imports) has all-or-nothing semantics: if my ontology owl:imports the FOAF namespace, then I would suck all definitions of FOAF into my own model, even though I just care about one or two concepts. The result is that in Semantic Web inference engines, browsers or editors, my ontology will be full of definitions that are just distracting, or unnecessarily increase the complexity of my model. Since owl:imports is not the ideal mechanism, people sometimes simply extract term definitions from other files and paste them into their own files - look for example at the bottom of this file. This, of course, leads to other maintenance problems and is generally not a clean approach.
For an internal project in which I wanted to re-use parts of the SIOC namespace, I have implemented a new web service called rdfex.org. RDFex is a very simple, yet IMHO elegant, mechanism for using owl:imports to import snippets of other namespaces without having to copy and paste them. The basic idea is that the rdfex.org server can be used as a proxy for various popular ontologies (including DC, FOAF and SIOC), so that users can specify which classes, properties and individuals from those namespaces they would like to import (using owl:imports). For example, the proxy ontology http://rdfex.org/foaf/Person,firstName represents all triples defining the class foaf:Person and the property foaf:firstName, including their rdf:type, rdfs:labels, rdfs:comments and any relationships between those terms (such as rdfs:domain and rdfs:range). Any combination of those resources is available because the result will be dynamically assembled at request time.
The upcoming release of the TopBraid platform 3.2 also has native support for those rdfex imports, so that the system can do this extraction from local copies instead of having to go to the web. TopQuadrant is committed to supporting this service in the future, so please feel free to use it if you find it useful.