Monday, January 29, 2007

The importance of Open Standards

A standard truly becomes great when we stop thinking about it and take
it for granted. When we wake up in the morning and drive to work, we
don't spend time wondering which side of the road we should drive on.
Standards eliminate the friction from routine activities and enable us
to focus on more important priorities in our life. When we surf the web,
send e-mails to each other or drive a car, an enormous amount of open
standards enable us to accomplish what we set out to achieve.

In the world of software, open standards is a term that is freely used
but loosely defined. Many companies try to push proprietary standards as
open standards and try to convert the term into an oxymoron. The Open
Source Initiative ( has proposed a draft definition
aimed at keeping open standards truly open. The definition reads:

1. The standard must include all details necessary for
interoperable implementation.

2. The standard must be freely and publicly available (e.g., from a
stable web site) under royalty-free terms.

3. All patents essential to implementation of the standard must be
licensed under royalty-free terms.

4. There may be no requirement for execution of a license
agreement, NDA, grant, click-through, or any other form of
paperwork to deploy conforming software.

5. Implementation of the standard may not critically require any
other technology that fails to meet the criteria of this

Clear documentation is the most basic starting point for establishing a
standard. However, it is not enough that a standard be clearly
documented to enable interoperable implementation. The standard must be
clear of encumbrances like copyright, patents etc. that could prevent
users from making full use of the standard. For example, when we buy a
house, we seek a document from the builder or the seller, certifying
that the property is free of all encumbrances and has a clear and
marketable title and that the seller agrees to indemnify the buyer
against any claims on the property being sold. No bank would sanction a
home loan without such a document. In the world of software, the
consequences of encumbrances can be enormous, as can be seen from the
Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) patent case.

JPEG, as most users of digital photographs know, is a popular format for
saving photographic images that has been widely adopted by makers of
digital cameras, camcorders, PDA, cellphones and other devices. In 2002,
Forgent, a company that owned Patent No. 4,698,672 in the US, ambushed
the industry by suing 31 major hardware and software vendors, including
Dell and Apple Computers. The company alleged that these companies
infringed on its claim to an algorithm used in the popular JPEG picture
file format. It is reported that Forgent's legal assault earned it $150
million before it was brought to its heels by the Public Patent
Foundation that challenged and overturned Forgent's claims.

Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation who fought the JPEG patent
case points out that 900 patents are issued every week in the US and
fifty five patent law suits are filed every week. While it costs only 39
cents to send a postcard with a cease and desist notice to an alleged
patent infringer, the defendant would have to spend $40,000 to get a
lawyer's opinion and anywhere from $2-4 million to defend a case.

The indiscriminate manner in which software patents are granted hang
like the proverbial Damocles sword over open standards. Tim Berners Lee,
inventor of the World Wide Web and a great champion of open standards
told Wired magazine in an interview on web services that, “My fear is
that significant standards will be covered with patents, and if so it'll
just kill development. A lot of these [proposed] vendor patents are
ridiculous, but the fear and uncertainty over them is there.”

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that Berners Lee leads, says that,
“In order for the Web to reach its full potential, the most fundamental
Web technologies must be compatible with one another and allow any
hardware and software used to access the Web to work together. W3C
refers to this goal as “Web interoperability.” By publishing open (non-
proprietary) standards for Web languages and protocols, W3C seeks to
avoid market fragmentation and thus Web fragmentation.” Imagine where
the web would be without open standards!

Open standards are the foundation of our IT infrastructure and it is
therefore important that these standards should be free of encumbrances
and freely available to all-—now and forever.

Hariharan heads Open Source Affairs at Red Hat India Pvt. Ltd. Red Hat
is the world's leading open source software company.