Petter Reinholdtsen

The many definitions of a open standard
27th December 2010

One of the reasons I like the Digistan definition of "Free and Open Standard" is that this is a new term, and thus the meaning of the term has been decided by Digistan. The term "Open Standard" has become so misunderstood that it is no longer very useful when talking about standards. One end up discussing which definition is the best one and with such frame the only one gaining are the proponents of de-facto standards and proprietary solutions.

But to give us an idea about the diversity of definitions of open standards, here are a few that I know about. This list is not complete, but can be a starting point for those that want to do a complete survey. More definitions are available on the wikipedia page.

First off is my favourite, the definition from the European Interoperability Framework version 1.0. Really sad to notice that BSA and others has succeeded in getting it removed from version 2.0 of the framework by stacking the committee drafting the new version with their own people. Anyway, the definition is still available and it include the key properties needed to make sure everyone can use a specification on equal terms.

The following are the minimal characteristics that a specification and its attendant documents must have in order to be considered an open standard:

  • The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organisation, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).
  • The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available either freely or at a nominal charge. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute and use it for no fee or at a nominal fee.
  • The intellectual property - i.e. patents possibly present - of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty- free basis.
  • There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.

Another one originates from my friends over at DKUUG, who coined and gathered support for this definition in 2004. It even made it into the Danish parlament as their definition of a open standard. Another from a different part of the Danish government is available from the wikipedia page.

En åben standard opfylder følgende krav:

  1. Veldokumenteret med den fuldstændige specifikation offentligt tilgængelig.
  2. Frit implementerbar uden økonomiske, politiske eller juridiske begrænsninger på implementation og anvendelse.
  3. Standardiseret og vedligeholdt i et åbent forum (en såkaldt "standardiseringsorganisation") via en åben proces.

Then there is the definition from Free Software Foundation Europe.

An Open Standard refers to a format or protocol that is

  1. subject to full public assessment and use without constraints in a manner equally available to all parties;
  2. without any components or extensions that have dependencies on formats or protocols that do not meet the definition of an Open Standard themselves;
  3. free from legal or technical clauses that limit its utilisation by any party or in any business model;
  4. managed and further developed independently of any single vendor in a process open to the equal participation of competitors and third parties;
  5. available in multiple complete implementations by competing vendors, or as a complete implementation equally available to all parties.

A long time ago, SUN Microsystems, now bought by Oracle, created its Open Standards Checklist with a fairly detailed description.

Creation and Management of an Open Standard

  • Its development and management process must be collaborative and democratic:
    • Participation must be accessible to all those who wish to participate and can meet fair and reasonable criteria imposed by the organization under which it is developed and managed.
    • The processes must be documented and, through a known method, can be changed through input from all participants.
    • The process must be based on formal and binding commitments for the disclosure and licensing of intellectual property rights.
    • Development and management should strive for consensus, and an appeals process must be clearly outlined.
    • The standard specification must be open to extensive public review at least once in its life-cycle, with comments duly discussed and acted upon, if required.

Use and Licensing of an Open Standard

  • The standard must describe an interface, not an implementation, and the industry must be capable of creating multiple, competing implementations to the interface described in the standard without undue or restrictive constraints. Interfaces include APIs, protocols, schemas, data formats and their encoding.
  • The standard must not contain any proprietary "hooks" that create a technical or economic barriers
  • Faithful implementations of the standard must interoperate. Interoperability means the ability of a computer program to communicate and exchange information with other computer programs and mutually to use the information which has been exchanged. This includes the ability to use, convert, or exchange file formats, protocols, schemas, interface information or conventions, so as to permit the computer program to work with other computer programs and users in all the ways in which they are intended to function.
  • It must be permissible for anyone to copy, distribute and read the standard for a nominal fee, or even no fee. If there is a fee, it must be low enough to not preclude widespread use.
  • It must be possible for anyone to obtain free (no royalties or fees; also known as "royalty free"), worldwide, non-exclusive and perpetual licenses to all essential patent claims to make, use and sell products based on the standard. The only exceptions are terminations per the reciprocity and defensive suspension terms outlined below. Essential patent claims include pending, unpublished patents, published patents, and patent applications. The license is only for the exact scope of the standard in question.
    • May be conditioned only on reciprocal licenses to any of licensees' patent claims essential to practice that standard (also known as a reciprocity clause)
    • May be terminated as to any licensee who sues the licensor or any other licensee for infringement of patent claims essential to practice that standard (also known as a "defensive suspension" clause)
    • The same licensing terms are available to every potential licensor
  • The licensing terms of an open standards must not preclude implementations of that standard under open source licensing terms or restricted licensing terms

It is said that one of the nice things about standards is that there are so many of them. As you can see, the same holds true for open standard definitions. Most of the definitions have a lot in common, and it is not really controversial what properties a open standard should have, but the diversity of definitions have made it possible for those that want to avoid a level marked field and real competition to downplay the significance of open standards. I hope we can turn this tide by focusing on the advantages of Free and Open Standards.

Tags: digistan, english, standard.

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