Secret standards

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Is it an oxymoron, or just moronic?

In the free-wheeling world of free software, we are accustomed to free standards, published freely, defined by freely distributable (if not necessarily freely-modifiable) standards documents. So the idea that an industry group should get together behind closed doors, come up with a data interchange standard and then bury it by copyrighting the specification for that standard, making it available only from a single source, and charging outrageously high prices for the right to read it seems utterly mad to us!

I mean, if there’s any category of information that must be free in order to operate, a standards specification has got to be it, right?

Nevertheless, many other industries don’t seem to share this view. In the manufacturing industry in particular, the restriction of a standard to “manufacturing companies" doesn’t seem like a restriction at all, and so they are oblivious to the difficulties imposed by creating standards which are so expensive that the only people who can afford them are companies who intend to sink even more capital into the investment of building according to those standards.

For example, although you may not be at all surprised to know that electric motors have a set of letter-coded “standard frame sizes" (similar to what people in the computer industry call “form factor"—basically the bolt patterns, maximum extents, etc), you might be very surprised to find that there is nowhere where you can download a set of drawings of what those standard frame sizes are. The specification of that standard is proprietary, and you must pay a fairly substantial price to get a copy of the spec.

Naturally, there are justifications for this practice:

  • Standardization processes take the time of engineers and executives, who must be remunerated for their efforts. Charging for copies of the standard is a way to pay for this, doesn’t interfere with “serious" users of the standard, and maintaining a monopoly source is merely a way to ensure that these fees are paid.
  • Maintaining a monopoly source on the standard is the only way to ensure that the standard does not get modified, and assures that accountability remains with the standards organization.
  • Maintaining a closed standards organization keeps the organization reasonably small, ensures that “serious stakeholders" are in on the standards design, and companies participating in that process deserve to be compensated by having exclusive access to the documents—it’s like any other investment in intellectual property that a company might make.

And when the manufacturing industry started to come over into the world of software and data-communications standards, they carried the same attitudes with them. So I found when I tried to investigate the standards for Computer Aided Design (CAD) interchange.

For example, the “Standard for the Exchange of Product model data" (STEP), also known as ISO-10303, is maintained by the International Standards Organization, just like, say, Unicode (or rather UCS/ISO-10646) is.

Unlike, Unicode, however, STEP is pretty hard to find specification documents for. For example, you will have a very hard time extracting any meaningful information from the SC4 site which appears to be the official source of these documents. Even though, the ISO’s “COPYRIGHT PROTECTION"[sic] says that there is an “exemption" for the "Express listings" of the STEP “application protocols". I challenge you to find these listings, I really could use a link right now.

EDIT: I received a response about this from members of the ISO committee responsible for STEP. It seems that in fact the listings are available for download from this site. It’s a bit tricky for me to give you links to everything, but the documents of particular interest to me were/are:

STEP Parts 0-99

STEP Parts 100-199

STEP Parts 200-299

Click "Expand ALL Folders" and then string search for "EXPRESS Schema".

I should say that although STEP itself is apparently largely proprietary, there are efforts to extract a free standard from it, such as the NIST’s Step Modularization project, which is now hosted on Sourceforge. It’s not terribly active, from what I can see, but what they do have is a means of translating STEP specifications from those “Express listings" (Express/ISO-10303-11 is an object-database schema definition language—basically a competitor to XML from what I can gather) to an XML representation. Certainly this is a good first step if we ever want to see a truly free data exchange system for CAD.

But it’s very clear that we are swimming against the current in the manufacturing and computer aided design industry. If that didn’t convince you, consider that “OpenDWG" and “JTOpen" are both proprietary, closed-source software packages to read “de facto" “standards" (AutoCAD’s native DWG format, and “JT" format, respectively). Despite names that border on fraudulent representations of open source. Oh yeah, and then there’s “OpenCascade" which is less non-free, but still not free-licensed (it has a “talkback" clause, which means it’s GPL-incompatible, and non-free by at least two of the leading judges of the freedom of software licenses, namely Debian and the Free Software Foundation), it’s supposed to read STEP files.

I hope you can appreciate that I am a little frustrated with this situation.

None of the arguments for proprietary standards are particularly original. They’ve been made about software and/or software standards. They’re also apparently all bunk, given that the free software world works quite fine without them, and given that the rate of innovation in the free software world far-outstrips any innovation in the industrial manufacturing economy.

Now, of course, someone will object that the manufacturing economy has all sorts of other forms of friction that slow down innovation (after all, they have to cut metal, right?), so that’s an unfair comparison.

Fine. So let’s restrict it to the proprietary software industry which tries to follow these same hide-bound rules. Point made?

If we ever want these kind of attitudes to change though, so that innovation in other sectors of the economy can ever reach a sufficient level that we can avoid technological collapse and a subsequent global dark age, then we need to start communicating about the reasons why this old way of doing things is just dumb, and why the new paradigm of free licensed information makes a whole lot more sense.

Because that’s what free-licensing and the freedom of information is: it’s a whole new economic paradigm. It changes the way you look at an awful lot of things, and it’s hard to communicate that new world view to people who just don’t see it yet. Or who only see it in a tiny corner of their world, like “free-licensed open source software".

Briefly, I do want to outline some arguments against the three points for proprietary standards mentioned above. I’m sure there are many others, and perhaps better ones, but I do want to follow my own advice here...

Paying for standardization efforts: surely it’s not more complicated than the standards that run the internet, or Linux kernel modules, or Linux itself, all developed without such funding models.

Protecting against unauthorized changes: this is trivial. The W3C does this. The FSF does this. Even RFCs have this. All you have to do is state the requirement and declare an authoritative source. There is substantial market pressure not to corrupt standards, so it’s generally a non-issue anyway. Certainly, there are people who will catch you out at it (yes, Microsoft keeps trying to redefine HTML and Javascript and Java—but even they, with their monopolistic marketplace position aren’t able to do so very successfully). You may be interested to notice that the Gnu Public License, which itself a kind of standard for distributing free software is not covered by a free-license, but is rather distributed verbatim. You can write a new license that uses the same ideas, but you can’t call it “The Gnu Public License" (otherwise, it would be trivial for a recipient to alter the license, to, say, remove the copyleft restrictions).

The restriction to “serious stakeholders": this is basically a monopoly trade practice, so I hope it’s pretty clear why this is a bad idea. Actually, the real point is that progress can and is made by individual contributors, so the idea of “keeping out the riff raff" is just stupid. Basically, you’re just trying to shut out the people who invalidate the first point (i.e. people who have sensible motivation to spend time on developing the standard). The only reason why people get away with this is lethargy—the industry is already restricted by the economic forces that control who can use the manufacturing equipment and other investment barriers to entry, so this little one hardly seems to matter. But it does matter, especially in industries where the other barriers are slowly coming down due to technological progress.



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Comment from: David Sugar [Member] ·

11/04/05 @ 19:52
My experience was with telecommunications, where many of the "standards" have historically been locked away in a manner much like you describe. Some parts are held by the ITU, which expects a pretty penny for any of their standard documents, some by Bellcore, who charge even more, and some by other places. Others are deliberately patent encumbered and yet internationally "mandated" interoperable "standards", like G.729 codec's. We are so very luck that the internet came about through the IETF process, and not the ITU.

Comment from: Darrell Harmon [Visitor] ·

11/08/05 @ 01:07
I have found the same problem with computer hardware standards. I wanted to implent the SD card socket in one of my hardware designs, but found that the only information available for free was 60 page overview of the standard. It was something like $6000 to buy a copy of the full thing. An NDA was also required. I gave up and soldered a flash chip directly to the board as the only free flash format is CF which was too large.

The specifications for all forms of PCI are also unreasonable to get. I understand PCI express is a real problem.

Ethernet is well enough known to implement, but requires a MAC address. IEEE sells blocks of these for $$$$. They sue anyone who tries to resell part of their block. The only valid way for people like me to get valid MAC addesses is to buy a bunch of old ISA nics, destroy them and use the MACs. Some people just choose to use a random string of hex.

One standards organization that has is right is USB. The whole document is available for download. They do sell vendor id's, but allow others to resell sections of thier space, so it is possible to pick up 16 vendor/device pairs for $25.

Hopefully things will move more toward the USB way of doing things and away from the NDA/$$$$ way of doing things, but I doubt it.

Darrell Harmon

Comment from: Adam [Visitor]

11/08/05 @ 15:19
First an "interpretation": OpenDWG and JTOpen could be programs to "open" DWG and JT format, not open programs... Okay, it's a stretch. :-)

But on industry and CAD, you're not going to replace the current "standards" anytime in the next fifty years or so. Yes, OSS has cost advantages and can innovate faster, but there's such a large installed base, and such strong network effects, it's a lot worse than even Microsoft Office I'm afraid.

At some point a handful of companies in a certain niche or in the developing world might work with something like Inkscape or qCAD. But the costs of licensing are really relatively low -- compared to the cost of engineers, or international trade, let alone manufacturing -- so there's not much competitive advantage to doing so.

Comment from: John Stracke [Visitor] ·

11/08/05 @ 15:39
USB is different because it came from Intel, who wanted to drive CPU sales. It's in Intel's interests to make it available to as many device manufacturers as possible.

Terry Hancock's picture

"At some point a handful of companies in a certain niche or in the developing world might work with something like Inkscape or qCAD. But the costs of licensing are really relatively low -- compared to the cost of engineers, or international trade, let alone manufacturing -- so there's not much competitive advantage to doing so."

This is making the same regrettable assumption that I've seen in the ISO and other places -- you are assuming that community-based production is impossible for hardware. That assumption is self-fulfilling when it is used as an excuse for not providing free standards. Or you could say it is "defensive" in the same way that DOC format is (or "was", now).

Of course, I realize that CBPP will continue to be a very small niche area in engineering for a long, long time, even if all the tools are made available, but size isn't always equivalent to importance: the free software foundation's GNU project has always been, and continues to be a dust-mote in terms of numbers of programmers, compared to the proprietary world, but that didn't stop them from making serious waves.

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Patrick Rourke's picture

The high price charged for the STEP standards is set by ISO and goes to support the ISO headquarters staff in Geneva. There most certainly is NOT any industry conspiracy to make the standards inaccessible. Everyone that I know from industry who worked on STEP is quite unhappy about the pricing.

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Terry Hancock's picture


Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.