Interview with Charles-H. Schulz on Open Standards

As you may have noticed, open standards are a hot topic currently. One person who deals with them all the time in a variety of ways is Charles-H. Schulz.

That's because he's one of the leaders of The Document Foundation, home to the LibreOffice fork of the ODF-based, and he's also on the board of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). The following is an interview exploring his views about standards – open and not so open.

First, could you tell us a little about your background in free software – how you first got started, what you worked on?

I started getting interested in IT in 1999; at that time friends and I were working in a startup developing emerging wireless Internet services. At that time we didn't have much money and got free copies of StarOffice 5.2 . Our servers ran Linux at that time, so I knew a bit about Open Source, but wasn't overly interested in it as a model. After the dot-com bubble burst I went back to being a student and I was intrigued when I learned that StarOffice was to be open-sourced. Shortly thereafter, in 2001, I joined the project and got more and more involved in Free and Open Source Software, not just with but in Linux distributions. I worked at MandrakeSoft, now Mandriva, made a short stay as part of my last year's business school's internship at Novell when it had just bought Suse. I was involved in other FOSS companies as well, especially in the field of content management systems.

What projects do you work on, and what is your current employment?

I wear many hats. I am a founding partner of Ars Aperta, a French consultancy providing management and strategic assistance on FOSS and Open Standards, and in that capacity I also serve as one of the members of the board of the OASIS Consortium. I am also known to be one of the cofounders of the Document Foundation, home of the LibreOffice project, and I'm honoured to be a member of its board of directors. I'm mostly working on setting up the governance structure of the LibreOffice community, and raising funds both for the foundation itself and for strategic initiatives of the Document Foundation.

One of the key issues at the moment is what defines an open standard, and in particular what the licensing should be for any claimed patents that are involved. What's your definition of an open standard? What do you think the terms FRAND and RF mean?

I think it is useful to start with two questions. What is a standard, and what is the definition of an open standard?

A standard is a specification for something, a technology, or a tool, or for a method, that has been agreed by more than two parties. Usually we expect government or state-controlled standard-setting authorities to give their stamp of approval to the specification in order to make it a standard, but that's not always the case. In short, a standard stands as the meeting point for various interests, and is meant to have the widest adoption possible within its sphere of relevance.

This short and abstract definition underscores the inherent tension in standardisation: a standard, depending on the influence of the stakeholders in its development, might either be the faithful expression of its future implementers, or can be the intended outcome of its future consumers. And of course, it may as well be anything in the middle.

An open standard is a standard whose development and distribution have not fallen prey to vendor capture. In other words an open standard is the result of an open, inclusive, participative development and standardisation, and a standard that can be used without any restriction.

There are many standards that do not belong to this category. There are standards that are developed in close cooperation by a set of coopted partners for instance, standards that were directly or indirectly developed under the dominance and exclusive control of one party; and then there are of course standards whose distribution and usage are conditioned upon the explicit or implicit acknowledgement of specific rights from "upstream parties", such as patents.

An open standard does not come with such hurdles as it comes with no legal barriers, nor royalty fees to be paid or to be acknowledged by anyone: such claims have been explicitly neutralised before the standardisation process has been completed.

You now see that I come very close to terms such as Royalty Free (RF) and Fair, Reasonable And Non Discriminatory (FRAND).

I already gave the definition of the Royalty Free licensing mode above. The FRAND
or even "RAND" mode is quite complex, if not impossible to define. Let's just say that, in the field of information technologies and telecommunications, RAND (Reasonable And Non Discriminatory) is a common standards licensing mode. But while it's been the case so far, we also know that such a mode comes with troubling issues.

Specifically, the "reasonable and non-discriminatory" does not seem to equate to any fixed, well-known in advance sum to be paid. In fact, this reasonable and moderate-sounding mode only indicates one thing about the standard it covers: that you, the user of that standard, must in all cases acknowledge that you're using somebody else's patents and that at any time, you can be asked to pay money for your usage and for your downstream distribution to any subsequent users of this standard.

It has proven to be the source of multiple litigations, some of which are being heard in various courts all around the world, and has proven to be a strong barrier to innovation, as it does not rely on openness so that sustainable ecosystems can grow on standards' usage. At the time where the pace of innovation increases at an exponential rate such licensing practices are antiquated and a detriment to innovation – and to Free & Open Source Software.

Free & Open Source Software do not play well with software patents, in fact these two just do not work together; no FOSS licenses acknowledge the claims of software patents, it's a dangerous nonsense to pretend otherwise. I usually say that RAND rather means "RANDom licensing at the sight of an innovator" and unfortunately, adding the letter "F" for "fair" besides RAND will not change that. Just like there is no real definition of RAND, there is also no definition of FRAND. It would be just the same if I added the letter "S" for "Sustainable" to FRAND. We would have a "SFRAND" that would be just as problematic as RAND.

Whose position is that – just yours, or also the Document Foundation's?

It is my position, although it is very close to the Document Foundation's own position. It is, however, not the position of the OASIS Consortium.

Where does OASIS stand on all this?

I think it would be accurate to say that in substance, the OASIS Consortium has a very diverse membership and has therefore no well-defined opinion on this. What is unique about the OASIS, however, is that we are a consortium that develops a very high number of Royalty-Free (RF) standards and has very precise process rules to bring specification to standardisation. We also took the additional steps to require that all participants to the development of a standard distributed under the RF mode waive their patent claims before joining the standard's development. So we have a double safety-lock on bad surprises, in a sense. However, it is also worth pointing out that there are OASIS standards that come with RAND conditions. Therefore I think it's fair to say that the OASIS is more interested in the quality of the standards it produces than in the policy setting about ICT standardization.

Why do you think open standards important for government and innovation in general?

Open Standards are important for government and innovation because they enable a level-playing field for governments and innovators at two levels. First, they allow the participation of anyone, including governments, in their development, and second, they set the right conditions that are necessary for a competitive ecosystem to thrive. There is an added benefit for governments: as the public sector represents the public interest which is by definition different from private interests, open standards give them useful means to make the public interest prevail and help them maintain their digital sovereignty.

What do you think might be the consequences if the wrong definition is chosen, for both the UK government and for open source in the UK?

Well, that's a tough one. Not being a subject of Her Majesty, I tend to feel uneasy meddling in the business of Her government, despite the evidence of non-British special interests being hell-bent on keeping the United Kingdom's administration from using Free and Open Source Software. I think that the British public interest mandates the right definition of what an open standard is, and that such a definition will pose no constraints on the use and the adoption of Free and Open Source Software.

I also think that Free and Open Source Software, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, is a fundamental tool to create jobs at home, to generate business for local companies and helps innovation, as all innovation today in the field of ICT relies primarily on Free and Open Source Software. Look at Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, Mozilla, Facebook: they all use, produce and consume Free and Open Source Software. If Her Majesty's Government wants to save money while creating the conditions for such successes to start in the United Kingdom, Free and Open Source Software will be key to this endeavour.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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