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:
- Underwrites the expensive process of standards development
- Maintains the perceived value of standards
- Treats standards like all other required inputs to product development
- Provides copyright protection
- 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.