Interoperability and Open Standards: Help Make It Happen

In a previous column, I mentioned that I was invited to talk at a meeting at the European Parliament about innovation prizes last week. That's not something that often happens, and I frequently get to hear about meetings only after the event,...

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In a previous column, I mentioned that I was invited to talk at a meeting at the European Parliament about innovation prizes last week. That's not something that often happens, and I frequently get to hear about meetings only after the event, when it's too late, which is very frustrating. But happily here's one on the 16th June entitled "Interoperability and standards: making it happen" that I've come across in time:

This session will discuss two different subjects related to standards and interoperability.

Firstly, how can public authorities ensure that best use is made of existing standards in public procurement in order to avoid lock-in into proprietary technology and enhance interoperability (Digital Agenda action 23)?

Secondly, how to boost interoperability (and innovation) in the absence of formal standards, e.g. through the licensing of interoperability information (Digital Agenda action 25)?

Making use of standards in ICT systems will enhance interoperability and therefore stimulate innovation and lead to more choice and better products for IT consumers.

At the bottom of the page, there's a helpful comment from someone at the European Commission as follows:

The Commission is indeed also interested in the opinion of small (and big) companies in Europe. So please participate to the discussion during the worskhop or send your ideas to [email protected], then we can take them into account.

Now, I've not been invited to take part (not that there's any particular reason why I should), nor can I go there under my own steam. But the option to submit comments via email is too good an opportunity to pass up. As long-suffering readers will know, interoperability and open standards is an area I regard as crucially important for open source.

So it will come as no surprise that I intend to avail myself of the email option – or that I have included my comments below. I would also urge you to send your own thoughts – however brief – to the address [email protected] before next Thursday. It does seem to make a difference, surprising as that may seem....

I am writing to you in connection with the session "Interoperability and standards: making it happen". Unfortunately, I am unable to be present at this important meeting, but I would like to participate in the discussion by making a few comments.

As a journalist who has been writing about open source, open standards and interoperability for over 15 years, I applaud the inclusion of this important area in the programme of the Digital Agenda Assembly. As your Web page notes, the key issue is "how can public authorities ensure that best use is made of existing standards in public procurement in order to avoid lock-in into proprietary technology and enhance interoperability?"

The way out from lock-in is through truly open standards that let any company, big or small, local or foreign, compete on a level playing field. This allows public authorities to enjoy the benefits of real competition when procuring software. Just as importantly, it allows them to switch suppliers at any point afterwards, because the open standards embodied in the software can be supported by anyone. This contrasts with proprietary standards, which are always ultimately controlled by the company owning them.

As has become clear in recent years, one important class of software is that released under open source licences that allow it to be copied, modified and given away. Perhaps the most famous of these is GNU/Linux, the free operating system that powers 91% of the world's top 500 supercomputers, enabled leading Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter to grow rapidly (since they did not need to pay licensing fees every time they added thousands of new servers), as well as forming the foundation for the hugely-successful Android smartphone ecosystem.

One of the important roles that open source has played has been to provide competition for proprietary software. That is, the mere availability of a free, open source offering has forced software companies to lower their prices in order to compete. For this advantageous situation to occur, it is important that open source be a credible competitor for the market in question. Once again, open standards are crucial. If the procurement is based around truly open standards, then open source can compete on an equal basis, bringing downward pressure to bear on the pricing of other bids.

According to the latest figures from the company Black Duck, 61% of all open source projects employ the GNU GPL, making it by far the most important among open source licences – it's also the one used by GNU/Linux. Clearly, then, it is vital to ensure that software released under GNU GPL is able to compete against traditional applications if the competitive benefits are to be realised.

Unfortunately, some so-called "open standards" do not create truly level playing fields, but exclude precisely this kind of licence. This is the case when FRAND - "Fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory" - licensing conditions are employed, rather than the alternative RF (Royalty-Free) licence.

To see why, consider a licence that requires a very small fee to be paid for every copy of software that implements the FRAND "open standard" in question. That might be just fractions of a Euro, and hence fair and reasonable; and if it were offered to everyone on those terms, it would also be non-discriminatory. But it would also be impossible to implement in free software released under the GPL, which, by its very nature, can be copied once or a million times without needing permission of any kind. This means that there is simply no way that even small licence fees can be collected or paid on a per copy basis.

One alternative would be for a lump sum to be paid, no matter how many copies of code released under the GPL were made. The problem is that this is not generally how FRAND licensing works. In particular, standards that employ FRAND licensing don't guarantee that this option will be offered, or if offered that it will be a reasonable figure (such lump-sum licensing is clearly not a practical option if an exorbitant one-off fee is demanded), which means that in general programs released under the GPL are excluded.

For these reasons I would like to recommend to the session that only open standards creating a truly level playing field through the use of royalty-free (RF) licensing should be considered by public authorities in their procurement of computer software. Anything else will exclude the most important open source licence from general consideration – the one behind GNU/Linux – remove the competitive pressure for traditional software companies to reduce their prices, and inevitably perpetuate lock-in to their proprietary technology.

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