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 transmitting 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
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
their 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
- 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
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, it is more important to ensure its
portability between different applications. This is why it is essential
to make sure that the format one chooses to store 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
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
Overburdened standards with multiple unnecessary features give their
vendors 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.
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 can be as valuable as
the formal specification, as this helps to avoid the
extended trial-and-error process for resolving ambiguities in formal
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 to act as a formal specification without the institutional process of
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 wishes to adopt and implement
the standard has to, therefore, acquire the appropriate licence from the
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 addresses 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 information and communications technology (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 does not place 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
- 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.