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Standards: free or sold?

Why do some standards development organizations (SDOs) provide standards for free and others charge significant amounts of money for them? The fees from the sale of standards and the stringent policies on sharing copies of standards may decrease the number of people who access these documents and may thus reduce the impact of the standards.

Consider two scenarios. In one scenario, information technology standards are available only via purchase. In the other scenario, information is freely available, such as through the Internet.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) provides an electronic site on the Internet from which anyone can copy ITU standards. The European Computer Manufacturers Association also distributes its standards at no cost. On the other hand, organizations such as the International Organization of Standards (ISO) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) sell their standards.

Many proprietary and vendor/consortia- developed specifications are either on the Internet or are sold at lower prices than their formal cousins. The following are examples from graphics:

* TIFF (free from Microsoft's ftp site) vs. CGM (hundreds of dollars from ISO)

* Open GL (free from Microsoft's ftp site) vs. PHIGS (hundreds of dollars from ISO)

The availability of specifications on the Internet facilitates their acceptance as de facto standards and rewards the development efforts of those that made the specifications. The acceptance of the specification is the major objective and is more rewarding to those responsible for developing the content than the monetary sale of individual copies of the standard.

Why should volunteers choose to develop standards for those organizations which then make money from the sale of the standards? Might there not be a natural selection process such that increased knowledge about the standards process and the marketing of standards helps bring success to those organizations which best serve the interests of the market.

Part of this success in the standards realm would be that as many people who might use a standard readily get a copy of it.

The Role of ISO

Formal standards organizations provide avenue for establishing consensus support for standards. The value of ISO to its respective constituents rests on constituent confidence that the standard approved by ISO resulted from fair, above-board considerations assuring long-lived consensus support. The actual standard specification development is correctly turned over to volunteer technical experts.

ISO also serves coordinating and distributing functions the paying members of the organization manage - similar to the United Nations.

ISO has "civil servants" whose salaries result from member dues. The annual budget decisions provide the major members with control over ISO.

The member organizations may choose to reduce member dues by using revenue from the sale of standards documents for supporting the ISO member-approved program. Examination of the budget indicates the sources of income and the support given to various programs.

Currently, 50% of ISO's income is from selling information technology standards. But there is no clear reason why the selling of these standards should be in the best interests of the members of ISO.

Are standards documents a reasonable source of income for ISO? Standards promoting organizations, such as ISO, facilitate the development of standards but the bulk of the work is done by volunteers and no royalties are paid to those who have developed the standards.

One method of economically distributing standards uses the Internet. Costs associated with providing a "standard documents server," its availability, and its maintenance will replace the paper-related costs.

Should these functions be covered by the dues of the members? Might ISO make standards freely, electronically available?

What Role Do Consortia Play?

Consortia provide an interesting example of alternative sources of standards-related specifications and serious competition to formal standards organizations. Consortia may form in response to intense competition among the largest companies, each trying to dominate in volatile market segments, such as Unix platform sales. Despite their overtly commercial purposes, these organizations frequently find the development of de facto standards crucial to achieving their ends. In some cases, de jure standards bodies accept de facto standards or link them to their own standards (from Andrew Updegrove, Forming, Funding, and Operating Standard-Setting Consortia, in IEEE Micro, Dec. 1993, pp. 52-61). Should a standards organization take the product of a standards consortium and sell that product for a price?

To fund their development activities, consortia may charge fees to members. Funding levels of some consortia is on the order of millions of dollars. These funding needs can be either met by enrolling many members or by requiring very large contributions from individual members. For example, sponsor-level membership in PowerOpen (whose main goal is to foster rapid porting of software to the PowerPC environment) requires $250,000 in annual dues. Many consortia charge different rates for companies with different revenue levels, to permit smaller companies to participate. Again, there is no relation between these costs to produce a consortia specification that is offered to a standards organization for de jure standardization and the cost of the eventual de jure standards - the consortium wants to obtain support for the standard, not make money from the sales of the standards document.

Consortia, such as PowerOpen, X/Open, and OSF, are not in a position to produce de jure standards. What difference does it make whether the standards are de jure or de facto? In the international community, all nations that agreed to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) recognized that standards could be used as a nontariff trade barrier and included remedies in GATT to provide protection against this happening. First, GATT calls for all nations to use ISO standards as a first choice and, for exceptional and documented reasons, use national standards as an alternative. Of course, regional standards, like the Committee of European Normalization Standards, would also fit into this scheme. Standards organizations earn their right to define standards by using procedures that ensure the broadest consideration and widest acceptance of any resultant standard. Therefore, while smaller, more efficient organizations can develop de facto standards, the step of turning them into de jure standards still remains the exclusive role of standards organizations like ISO.

The Government's Role

Recently a group of vendors and users in the U.S. made a request for free or sharply reduced prices for standard documents and asked the federal government to look into this need. Hearings conducted by Congress noted the possibility of competition among the U.S. standardization promoting organizations for the returns from standards sales. Did such competition lead to reduced rather than increased cooperation among them? Did the high prices of the standards necessary to support the overhead of these standardization groups inhibit their use? A similar examination of this connection between standards and their prices could be made in Europe. (For mandatory standards the question of usage being inhibited by cost is not a relevant question. Thus, for Japan, which emphasizes mandatory standards, compliance and standards prices would have impacts different from the U.S., which tends to have voluntary standards compliance.)

An obvious example from history - standardizing weights - shows a role for government in standards. When it became clear that confidence in commerce required government to step in and enforce adherence to technically established weights, the government did so. Now the fact that the government endorses one standard unit of weight and participates in many ways to ensure and certify that consumers actually get that unit of weight, is a matter of course.

ISO, IEEE, and some other standards organizations are using the various copyright laws enforced by government to exploit a monopoly on the sale of some standards which, in some cases, were developed by volunteers who paid their own participating expenses. Monopolist or cartel practices can lead to good results, only if the monopolists are regulated. In democracies this regulation must come from the government. Unregulated monopolies or cartels have no need to consider "right-sizing," overhead costs eating into profit margins, or whether technological advances eliminate the need for continuing certain practices and staffs.

Organizations such as ISO are essentially monopolies or cartels whose regulation is essentially internal as it comes in the form of the guidance from the members of the organization who pay dues to help support the organization and determine its policy. Why should organizations such as ISO be allowed to sell standards that were developed for wide, public dissemination by volunteers?

If organizations, such as ACM, were to successfully lobby governments to coerce ISO to change its policy and if information technology standards were made freely available on the Internet, what would happen to ISO?

The members of ISO would have to provide further direct membership funding to their organization.

The United Nations does not charge for its services to those who receive them. Rather, the members of the UN have decided to pay dues so that services can be offered on a worldwide basis as needed. Why should ISO be different? The national members of ISO could pay enough dues to cover administrative costs. ISO standards could be made freely available on the Internet. Paper copies could be purchased at a price enough to defray only the direct costs of providing the paper copy.

Libraries that stock ISO standards documents could welcome library patrons to borrow or photocopy these standards. At the moment the contrary is typically true, and libraries can not facilitate the easy use of ISO standards.

The analogy to the traditional publishing industry may suggest another model, namely the current model of strict copyright rules and priced products. The publishing advantage is the clear sense of feedback as to which products are wanted by the public and the support of a publishing organization that provides a kind of quality control and provides long-term inventory, marketing, and distribution. The standardization groups have, however, different objectives from the private publishing business, as national and international standards documents are more similar to government documents than documents produced by publishing houses.

Among other things, the actual authors of standards do not get royalties.

The Internet is an excellent example of a technology that brings a broader policy issue to the fore. Namely, the issue of free distribution of standards is made particularly prominent by the availability of Internet distribution channels. Furthermore, the Internet itself exemplifies how voluntary, consensus-developed standards can succeed.

The Internet is the greatest success in the area of providing worldwide communications, and now it strongly influences through its existence the choice of standards by every organization. And its own standards were always on the Net, readily available, and free.

The ITU Case

So how can standards be made more widely available? One dedicated individual worked with ITU in an experiment in which ITU standards were made freely available on the Internet (see Carl Malamud's book Exploring the Internet, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1992). Initially, ITU was unhappy with this wide-scale, easy, free access by people to ITU standards. But on further reflection ITU realized that its own mission was best served by providing this kind of access to its standards and now supports Internet access.

The ITU is a worldwide organization within where governments and the private sector coordinate the establishment and operation of telecommunication networks and services. It is responsible for the regulation, standardization, coordination and development of international telecommunications as well as the harmonization of national policies. The ITU is an agency of the UN.

ITU standards via the Internet can be obtained through Gopher by following a descending path from the Europe node, to the Switzerland node, to the ITU node, and then to the "ITU Document Store" node.

From there one can search the ITU document database using key terms and receive lists of relevant standards. With Gopher one can also automatically copy the files to one's own computer.

The ITU retains a copyright notice on its files that says "Access to databases of the ITU for consultation of documents or information retrieval is permitted by the ITU subject to the user's acceptance of ITU's provisions and conditions of copyright contained within each document which obliges the user not to duplicate the document or parts thereof for distribution or sale external to the user's organization.

"Such information may be utilized in the receiving organization, as required, to further the work of the ITU or any standards body, developing related standards, to provide guidance for product or service development and implementation and to serve as support documentation associated with a product or service."

This ITU copyright position seems a reasonably enlightened one. Why do ISO and the organizations which follow its procedures, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the British Standards Institute, not follow the ITU example? Groups like the IEEE seem instead to be taking a retrograde action. In the IEEE Standards Bearer (Vol. 8, 3, Jul. 1994) the IEEE announces that it will henceforth copyright its "draft" standards. These are the drafts which volunteers normally circulate and discuss widely before the document is approved by the IEEE as a de jure standard.

In late-1994 ANSI began a five-year project to develop a National Standards System Network with partial funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The ANSI Reporter of August 1994 notes "The National Standards System Network will provide cataloging, indexing, searching, and routing capabilities to end users, allowing access to the entire range of national, regional, and international standards." Whether users will be billed and, if so, how, for access to standards is to be determined during the project.


The argument that standards should be free assumes the members of a Standards Development Organization (SDO) would pay a higher membership fee to allow the SDO to continue to manage part of the consensus process and to maintain the standards for distribution. One counter argument to this position is that the standards process and products should be part of the free market process. In this case, people or institutions who develop standards would be paid for their work, and the price of the standard would support the effort. SDOs would not have members who subsidize its functioning and volunteers would not do most of the work. Perhaps this model could work.

At the moment SDOs may insist on copyrighting documents that are drafts in the path towards a standard. An alternative to providing all documents for free or making the documents so expensive that their sale supports all the work done on them is that SDOs support distribution on the Internet of the intermediate documents. The SDO could continue to sell the final standards and thus help cover its costs, but intermediate documents would not be copyrighted and would be freely available on the Internet. These intermediate or "pre-standards" documents would be freely available to all who wanted them. People to whom the final, official standard was important would have to pay for it. The wide distribution of intermediary forms might stimulate interest in and compliance with standards.

Why Spend Millions on Standards Then Limit Their Use?

Many lawmakers realize information technology has become a public good, and its importance to society, commerce, and international relationships will only increase. Why should some SDOs charge for the fruit of their volunteers' efforts while others do not?

The current economic model of standards development is that volunteers write standards and SDO members pay the SDO to collect opinion about the draft standards and to sell the final standard. In the days when paper copies were the only practical way to distribute a standard, charging for its public availability was a different matter than it is today.

This column does not necessarily advocate that paper copies of standards should be free. One SDO, namely, the European Computer Manufacturers Association, does distribute free paper copies. This column particularly emphasizes that the current free character of the Internet be further exploited to facilitate the wide exchange of standards.

Information technology standards or, at least, their intermediate forms should be freely available on the Internet. Member dues for SDOs should be high enough so that such increased accessibility of standards information could be provided on the Net. The possibility of free access to standards should be extensively investigated. Certainly, for the information technology community this would be one way to increase the accessibility and utility of these documents and to create in the long run a more responsive and meaningful library of standards documents.


The authors would like to thank the ACM Technical Standards Committee, particularly George Carson, Jim Moore, and Irving Montanez, for valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this column. Neither the Committee nor its other members necessarily endorses the views herein.

Roy Rada is a member of the ACM Technical Standards Committee and John Berg is editor of Computer Standards & Interfaces.
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Title Annotation:standards development organizations
Author:Rada, Roy; Berg, John
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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