The “myth” of free standards

In the domain of Internet software world we take it for granted that standards documents are available for anybody to read. But in other domains that’s not the case, as I was reminded when I landed on this URL, where a copy of EN 303-5 — a European standard that governs “heating boilers for solid fuels, hand and automatically fired, nominal heat output of up to 300 kW” — is offered for £180.

Here’s how I got there. I’ve imported a wood gasification boiler from Europe, and I need to show my city that it’s a listed and rated device. Well it is, but it doesn’t carry ASME and UL certifications, it carries a TUV certification. I wanted to show what that means. The Declaration of Conformity that ships with the device lists a batch of relevant standards documents. I looked them up, and they’re all online but for similar prices. It’d cost me a couple of thousand dollars to read them all. That’s not going to happen.

I wound up printing out copies of the three Directives that govern the application of those standards, which have names like 97/23/EG, 73/23/EWG, and 90/336/EWG. These, I hope, will show the code enforcement officer that my boiler is tested and certified according to requirements comparable to those in the U.S.

But it made me stop and think. Broadly speaking, open access to standards documents is the exception, not the rule. In The Myth of Free Standards: Giving Away the Farm, Andrew Bank — writing for Techstreet, a Thomson Reuters company that sells copies of industry codes and standards — argues that’s a good thing. Acknowledging “a growing consensus among standards developers and users contends that making standards available at no cost will further their use and development”, he argues that a fee-based publication system:

  1. Underwrites the expensive process of standards development
  2. Maintains the perceived value of standards
  3. Treats standards like all other required inputs to product development
  4. Provides copyright protection
  5. Subsidizes membership in standards organizations

I don’t think any of these arguments will stall the growing consensus in favor of open access. But it’s interesting to review them, reflect yet again on how the Internet realigns publishing businesses, and imagine what new structures will emerge.

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9 thoughts on “The “myth” of free standards

  1. If the recent ISO/IEC DIS 29500 debacle has taught us anything, it’s that the imprimatur of a standards organization in the software world is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Instead of serving as vital clearinghouses for the new crowd of stakeholders, they are corrupted by their moneyed interests.

    I hope he realized the irony in arguing that the goal of charging for standards is to pay for standards organizations. I also found the scaremongering about free culture/free as in beer to be unconvincing:

    ‘By making standards available at no cost, we are effectively saying to users, “An army of volunteers just spent colossal amounts of time and money on developing this standard. It should be an essential part of your product development, one of the important requirements for market acceptance, and the blueprints for the utmost safety and quality of your product. Now, here it is for free.” How credible are our statements of value and integrity if we give standards away for free? Imagine buying a new washing machine. You are at the store, reading the features listed on each machine and comparing price tags. You come to a machine that claims to do everything that the others do, but it costs $300 less. Do you quickly write a check and take it home, or do you get suspicious and wonder why in a whole store of $500-600 washing machines, is this one $200? Standards users will wonder, “in a world full of information that costs money, why are standards given away for free?” ‘

    There’s an obvious public interest in cross-business industry standards. Why not just make standards organizations publicly funded, refuse private money, and subsidize distribution costs (selling printing and shipping at cost, and serving PDFs for free)?

  2. I certainly agree with the need for free and open standards, I do not agree the government needs to be gov’t funded. Non-profits supported by doaners I can live with, but lets not add gov’t bureaucracy to the standards process if we can avoid it.

  3. I don’t think we have to worry about bureacratic additions. I just looked into a standard, published this week (ISO/IEC 24754:2008), that was started in 2005, has 7 pages of text, and costs about $100 for either hard copy or PDF.

    It strikes me that this process is going to be self-limiting, especially in competition with organizations like W3C, OASIS, ECMA, and IETF that do make all of their specifications available for free.

  4. Software standards aren’t always free. IETF with RFCs pretty much pioneered this I think.

    But fortunately, they have sometimes been documented and reverse-engineered and rewritten on the web– these are often better than the official standard because they can include notes on implementation quirks, bugs and extensions.

  5. It is worth noting that eight years ago NISO announced that all of its standards documents would be made available free of charge on the web. NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, has been designated by ANSI as the U.S. representative to ISO TC 46 (information and documentation). Now, most of a decade later, they have kept their standards free with a business model based on membership fees, printed versions of standards, and workshops in support of the standards. So it is possible to create good standards and make them available free of charge.

  6. We have to abide by standards and codes, yet they aren’t readily made available. How does that work?

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