19 February 2018
Open Standards are the foundation of cooperation in modern society. They allow people to share all kinds of data freely, prevent vendor lock-in and other artificial barriers to interoperability, and promote choice between vendors and technology solutions. Open Standards are implementable with Free Software, and thus provide full competition in the market. FSFE advocates for fair competition, interoperability of solutions, and choice for consumers. Open Standards are necessary prerequisite to ensure these freedoms.
What is a technical standard?
A technical standard is a set of commonly agreed rules in regard to technical systems. It is usually documented in a so-called 'standard specification' that describes ways to consistently organise information so that it can be understood and used by multiple independent applications. Standards which are used for information storage are called 'formats', and those for transmissing information are called 'protocols'.
A standard establishes common ground that provides means for interoperability and competition. The antipode of standardisation is monopoly: users of one product or service can only interoperate with users of the same product or service. Therefore, standards are used to enable competition for the public benefit.
Standards can also be beneficial for innovation by allowing all actors on the market to innovate on top of the standard and build their own services in order to serve the standard.
Why Open Standards?
The problem arises when a standard is owned by one market player that uses her position to control the further development of the standard, or tries to manipulate it through licensing policies in order to exclude or include some specific groups of actors. In this case, the standardisation is used for contrary purposes than promoting competition and interoperability.
The full competition in the market is, therefore, provided by standards that are open. As Open Standards are freely available without any restrictions, they allow standardised technology to be used in products and services without any a priori advantage based on the ownership of the standard. As a consequence, the access to technology is allowed to all actors on the market irrespective of one's business model.
What is an 'open' standard?
Open Standards are implementable with Free Software. If a standard does not meet the following criteria, it discriminates against Free Software and cannot be thus called an 'open' standard:
An Open Standard refers to a format or protocol that is:
- Subject to full public assessment and use without constraints in a manner equally available to all parties;
- Without any components or extensions that have dependencies on formats or protocols that do not meet the definition of an Open Standard themselves;
- Free from legal or technical clauses that limit its utilisation by any party or in any business model;
- managed and further developed independently of any single vendor in a process open to the equal participation of competitors and third parties;
- Available in multiple complete implementations by competing vendors, or as a complete implementation equally available to all parties.
This way the standard ensures that technology is accessible for everyone, irrespective of business-model, size, or exclusive rights portfolio.
Why should a standard be minimalistic?
The aim of standards is to establish a common ground in technology and enable different applications to interact with each other. With more and more data being digitally stored, the more important is to ensure its portability between different applications. This is why it is essential to make sure that the format one chooses to store their data is accessible with multiple applications, irrespective of vendor or a technical solution.
This is why the standard needs to be not only open, but also 'minimalistic', in order to solve the technical problem adequately, and allow as many implementers of that standard as possible. In other words, there is a need to assess whether the standard is as simple as possible, and as complicated as necessary.
Overburdened standards with multiple unnecessary features gives its vendor an advantage: it is more difficult for another implementer to adequately read the format, and the customer is forced to a vendor lock-in. In addition, standards bloated with rarely used features leave backdoors and vulnerabilities for malicious attackers to take advantage of.
Standard that is implementable with Free Software
For software standards the actual standard is defined through both the formal specification and the actual implementation. Acquiring the formal specification is often not enough in order to implement the standard for complex digital systems. For any company wishing to implement the standard, knowledge of existing implementations is often even more valuable than the formal specification, as this helps to avoid the extended trial-and-error process for resolving ambiguities in formal specification.
Hence, for a standard to be sufficiently 'open', the openness needs to address both the specification and implementation.
Consequently, for open implementations it is economically more beneficial to publish reference implementations under a Free Software licence. This will allow the reference implementation to be freely available and also act as a formal specification without the institutional process of standard setting.
Patents in standards
Sometimes, the standard specification includes technical solutions that are needed in order to implement the standard. These technical solutions can be protected by patents. Whoever wishing to adopt and implement the standard has to, therefore, acquire the appropriate licence from the patent-holder.
Industry has turned to different licensing practices in order to overcome the issue of patents essential to standard implementation: for example 'royalty-free' (RF) or an alternative 'fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory' (FRAND) terms. FRAND terms are incompatible with Free Software. Furthermore, due to the fact that FRAND are usually kept secret, it is impossible to prove whether the imposed terms are objectively 'fair' or 'non-discriminatory'. Consequently, FRAND can be used as a tool to manipulate the standardisation process to exclude competition.
While RF licensing is addressing only the royalty-payment criteria, it does not address other restrictions that may be placed on adoption and implementation of a standard by Free Software. In this regard, the licensing policies of patented technology in standardisation have to be compatible with the widest range of actors on the market, as the purpose of standardisation is to promote competition and to allow innovation on top of it.
It is noteworthy, that hardly any new system in ICT is built without the use of Free Software, and the exclusion of companies basing their products on Free Software from standardisation can significantly hamper innovation. Therefore, the appropriate licence for standard-essential-patents is the one that is not placing any restrictions to the standard implementation with Free Software, i.e. 'restriction-free', according to the Open Standard definition.
What can you do?
As a citizen
Insist on Open Standards: don't let your government, university, employer, or a local public administration push you into using locked down formats.
As a politician
- Promote policies that in practice ensure competition and innovation in standardisation, i.e. minimalistic Open Standards implementable with Free Software.
- Promote licensing policies that are based on 'restriction-free' terms in order to achieve the widest adoption of standards and allow their implementation by all actors on the market.
- Prioritise the use of Open Standards in public procurement and software development in order to increase the interoperability of all software solutions used in public sector.
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