When discussing interoperability between products, restrictive conditions such as patents and licensing agreements are often kept out of sight. In a similar fashion, when discussing software patents, their controversial nature is typically concealed under an ‘umbrella’ called “intellectual property.” This leads to unnecessary confusion and has software patents honored in countries where such patents are fundamentally against the law.
Eyes on Europe
A couple of months ago in Europe, an agreement was announced between the European Commission, spearheaded by Commissioner for Competition Neelie Kroes, and Microsoft, which had just lost its antitrust appeal. The agreement embraced a route to further saturation in the server market, but rather than insisting on the use of standards, it seems to have drifted in another direction, which involved interoperability rather than open standards.
But Wait! What About Samba and the GNU GPL?
The agreement in Europe might stifle competition rather than spur any. It does not appeal to Free software developers and it is intrinsically incompatible with the most widely used software license in the world (GNU General Public License). This essentially leaves out in the cold what Microsoft has considered its No. 1 threat for many years.
The Samba project, which is GPL-licensed, enables several operating systems to interact with Microsoft Windows. Windows is ubiquitous, so this is essential. Protocols for file and printer sharing, for instance, are very prevalent in a form that was designed by Microsoft many years ago. None of this design was standardized or published openly, so reverse-engineering work was needed to bridge a critical gap. This made Free software, such as GNU/Linux, more viable in the enterprise.
With the European Commission’s agreement, a great concern arises. Suddenly, reverse-engineering endeavors that something so many people rely on can be made subjected to the wrath of software patents (and thus royalties). Ironically enough, Europe itself does not honor software patents, yet it seems to have blindly accepted what Microsoft insists on. There is a great danger here — the danger of letting standards be neglected and crucial consensus be decentralized.
Let us look at the importance of standards and then return to the issue at hand. This issue is unlikely to go away unless the European Commission changes its mind and its decision, thereby acknowledging its misunderstandings.
Why Are Standards Important?
In a world where diverse mixtures of technologies exist, products need to communicate. They need to interact with one another in order to handle complex tasks and for users to achieve their goals. The consensus has usually been that in order for products to communicate, industry leaders and field experts should convene and agree on a set of rules. They should agree on a single uniform method (or a set thereof) that will enable products to cooperate with one another. This is what standards are all about.
Companies have plenty of reasons to like standards. Universal standards make development much easier and they facilitate integration with other technologies. By adhering to standards, communication with other products can be assured. Rather than test and design ‘bridges’ (or ‘translators’, or lossy ‘converters’) for each pair or products, design can be matched to a written, publicly available and static standard. It makes life easier for both software development companies and companies that consume technology, i.e. those that actually use the products and whose requirements matter the most.
What happens, however, when one company deviates from the standard in pursuit of more control? Capitalization is dependent upon the ability to show that something unique is being offered. Standards, nevertheless, are about uniformity, not about being unique. Therefore, companies that want a greater level of control over customers are more likely to ignore standards, but the situation is not quite so simple.
In order to ignore a standard, it takes a lot of aggression. It also requires a market share large enough to abolish or at least fight against the standard, which is backed by many parties, not one. With monopoly control, standards are pretty much defined by the monopolist. They can be changed and extended at any time without causing much interference. However, such use of power can also push rival companies off the cliff. At the end of the day, this hurts consumers who are left without choice and have little control over pricing and upgrade pace.
The Symbiotic Relationship Between Standards and Openness
Free open source software enjoys a good resemblance to the notion of free and open standards. Both are available for viewing and they encourage participation. Free open source software tends to embrace standards for a plethora or reasons. Proprietary software, on the other hand, does not expose its underlying behavior. Quite often, its value lies in behavior that is hidden. The software protects (in the ownership sense) certain knowledge, so transparency is neither an option nor a priority.
Standards play a role in prevention of vendor lock-in. They facilitate choice and they encourage greater diversity in the market. Adversity to standards is not only motivated by financial value that can be found in restriction on choice, i.e. imprisoning the customer. It is also motivated by the ability to extract revenue directly from competitors. That is where software patents and so-called “intellectual monopolies” serve as a dangerous new element to keep on eye on. They have become a curious phenomenon in the software world because they are fearsome to many and beneficial to very few.
Patents Meet Free Standards and Free Software
In Europe, Microsoft has essentially managed to collect a trophy for snubbing standards all these years. Its lawyers turned a loss in the court into a small victory. In an antitrust exhibit extracted from the previous decade, Microsoft revealed its intent to ignore standardization bodies at all costs.
Having made a de facto standard so common and having defended its existence, all Microsoft needed was a reservation of rights to demand payments from competitors. Samba distributors and users are arguably bound by a promise that the European Commission specifies in its agreement with Microsoft. Other than the cost of obtaining documentation, there are patent royalties to be considered.
Reflections and Ways to Proceed
The decision made by the European Commission seems to have been a poor one. For starters, interoperability was chosen as the route to compliance, all at the expense of open standards. Moreover, based on the Commission’s own assessment, an interoperability route was needed merely because “trivial and pointless” extensions were added on top of existing standards, in order to stifle adoption of competing products. The Commission’s accusations and blame align poorly with its decision, which is discriminatory — if not exclusionary at best — toward Free open source software.
In conclusion, one must remember that open standards must never be conceded and replaced by a void promise of interoperability, which is incompatible with everything that standards and Free open source software stand for. Numerous parties have therefore protested and have already urged the European Commission to reconsider and revise its decision.