May 24, 2005

OASIS: Meaningful open standards or mirage?

Author: Jay Lyman

Despite some recent criticism -- which included a call to boycott standards based on reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) licensing fees -- the OASIS standards body is behind what many in the open source community view as a primary example of a truly open, industry-accepted standard: the new OpenDocument format.

Now that the OpenDocument format is official, and with its recent truce on Web services standards, there is a sense that the standards body is on the same path as the W3C, which is viewed as truly dedicated to open standards. However, OASIS critics still complain of the continued RAND policy and the patent encumbrances that stand to benefit some OASIS member companies rather than the industry at large.

Struggling toward openness

Larry Rosen, a software law expert and leader of the RAND reaction, said the concerns were focused specifically on RAND licensing within OASIS standards. He indicated he was unaware of any patent encumbrances in the OpenDocument format, and was therefore unconcerned about it.

"I see any standard that is not encumbered by patents as being a true benefit to the public," Rosen told NewsForge.

While he continued to protest the OASIS policy that still allows RAND fees, Rosen said the circumstances had changed in favor of open, patent-free standards since February, when a group of open source leaders, including Rosen, Bruce Perens, and others called for action against RAND patent standards from OASIS.

Describing it as vague, Rosen said IBM's patent pledge was nonetheless being applied more recently to OASIS standards, which Big Blue indicated would be free of patent issues, as least those from IBM.

"That, to me, is a victory," he said. "Assuming IBM means what they say, then at least IBM patents are off the table, which is a big chunk of patents. Microsoft hasn't made the same pledge, HP hasn't made the same pledge. Most other companies have not, but I'm not as worried when IBM wants standards free of [patent encumbrances]. I think the IBM declaration was a very big deal."

Rosen still had criticism for OASIS maintaining its policy that allows RAND, and indicated he has been unable to get any movement on the matter. Still, he again stressed the IBM patent pledge was a greater force in favor of open standards, rather than RAND ones.

"Given IBM's declaration, I can't imagine OASIS going ahead with RAND," he said. "They don't want to, even though they refuse to take it out of their policy. We'll see. We will look at [standards] as they come and say, 'OK, OpenDoc, this is good,' and then next, one at a time."

Columbia Law School professor and FOSS advocate Eben Moglen told NewsForge he sees OASIS as, "struggling, primarily successfully, toward achievement of open standards."

Moglen said the FOSS community was welcoming the new OpenDocument format, which he described as "not perfect, but a significant achievement." Still, the software law expert referred to struggles within OASIS and the lingering question of patent encumbrances in standards.

"We're watching as standards-making in industry goes through an ethical change," he said. "It used to be that standards bodies were closed clubs. If there were patent encumbrances, it was just part of the game. With FOSS, a different philosophy has to be taken when it comes to standards."

Moglen credited the W3C for standing up first and fiercest for open standards, which brings up another charge of Rosen and other OASIS critics, who contend those interested in patent profit from industry standards had moved from the W3C to OASIS.

Never used, so never mind

OASIS President and CEO Patrick Gannon dismissed that charge, telling NewsForge the recent decision to proceed with both the competing WS-ReliableMessaging and its own WS-Reliability Web services standards under the OASIS umbrella, for example, was not made because of the OASIS policy on RAND and patents.

"We've already committed to a royalty-free Web services stack," Gannon said, referring to OASIS as more of an application-to-business-problems body compared with the W3C. "They really are picking where best to do that work. The recent decision was not made because of our policy, it's about finding the best fit and bringing standards to market."

Gannon defended the standards body's overall dedication to open standards, indicating that as far back as standards such as ebXML, OASIS has supported open standards and open source.

"The largest majority of our standards are implemented in a royalty-free basis," he said. "We've had it in place. We've had that commitment. We think our record in this area is stellar."

Gannon said although they are not necessarily publicized, there are more than 10 SourceForge projects, for example, that are based on various OASIS specifications, and the standards body includes high-profile FOSS contributors including Debian and BlueCode, which was recently acquired by IBM.

"We don't issue press releases around them, but they're there," he said. "The evidence is out there. We have been a fertile ground for [open standards and open source projects]."

As for the continued concerns around its RAND policy, Gannon downplayed the issue and indicated the policy is rarely used.

"The instances of requiring license fees have been pretty close to non-existent, even under a RAND-allowing policy," he said. "We expect it to be little-used going forward."

Gannon also said in the absence of a drive by the majority of OASIS vendors to eliminate RAND from the policy, it will likely remain. "If it's an option nobody uses, then what's the harm?" Gannon added.

OpenDoc: strength of open source

Sam Hiser, former marketing lead of OpenOffice.org, told NewsForge that the OpenDocument's finalization as an OASIS standard is a good model for truly open industry standards. He contrasted OpenDocument with other implementations of W3C XML standards for office documents by software companies whose implementations are not open to free access by all.

"Such implementations of XML have proprietary characteristics which require a license or the purchase of the company's software to enable access to the information in their XML formatted documents," he said. "We hope that decision-makers -- particularly in government as they legislate new IT procurement policies and laws in their jurisdictions -- are taking advice to help them recognize the important differences between OpenDocument and the less-optimal implementations of XML file formats for office documents."

Despite the praise for OpenDocument, Hiser reiterated the RAND cries: "Any objections to RAND itself must be amplified to the heavens! Patents are appropriate for mechanical inventions but miss the original intent for digital inventions, i.e., software. Patents must be kept away from software because software has the nature of being easily duplicated and widely distributed and standardized at zero cost in practically no time in a way that mechanical objects cannot. That alone isn't enough justification for trashing the notion of patents -- which still have relevance in the bulky material world. Now that we have demonstrably superior methods for innovating software through open collaboration, there is no benefit and only harm from applying the philosophy of patents to software.

"Companies like IBM, Microsoft and others benefit from software patents by stopping the free market of ideas from operating in the realm of digital inventions," Hiser continued. "Their efforts at creating and protecting their patent portfolios is an old-world approach to keeping individuals and small groups of people from exploiting their own brain power and digital resources and competing effectively. It's a cynical attitude which, luckily, has little chance of surviving when small groups continue to show superior invention and business service delivery around collaborative works."

Hiser poured on the criticism for OASIS, but also referred to a protection sought and won by OpenOffice.org and others in the new OpenDocument format.

"The events around OASIS' recent amendments to their Intellectual Policy Rights (IPR) policy are detestable and not befitting a body of OASIS' mandate: 'Organization for the ADVANCEMENT of Structured Information Standards.' This IPR policy change goes against the name," he said. "Luckily, too, OpenOffice.org has a 'kill' clause which would nullify its distribution licenses under circumstances of change in IPR policy, thus nailing OpenOffice.org's OpenDocument format permanently into the public trust."

Hiser criticized the OASIS RAND policy and IPR change and credited it largely to Microsoft, but indicated it is no match for the push forward coming from FOSS.

"OASIS seem to still feel that there may exist some proprietary software somewhere which qualifies for special treatment as more worthy of protection from competition than other software," he said. "This fallacious view will be revealed in the light of longer experience and deeper adoption of the unparalleled innovation coming out of open source and free software projects. I would say that our experience with the quality of software (and the speed of its improvement) coming out of open collaboration defies this view which is undoubtedly influenced by the corporate constituents of OASIS who have the most patents and whose approach to business is the most threatened by open collaborative software methods and products."

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