Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Should standards be copyrighted?

In the last few days I've begun to sink my teeth into the CMIS (Content Management Interoperability Services) standards documents a little bit. Digesting it all is going to take a while. The docs are not too big (yet), but I'm a slow reader.

One thing that's a little weird to me is that the drafts of the standard (available at the above link) carry a Copyright notice on behalf of EMC, IBM, and Microsoft.

I find this peculiar for a standards document that is supposed to be the collaborative work of numerous industry players (including Alfresco, Oracle, Open Text, and others). I'm sure it just means that the particular instance-documents comprising the draft of the standard were written by people from EMC, IBM, and Microsoft, and the companies in question decided (based on some sort of policy emanating from Legal) to assert ownership over the instance-docs.

Why have a copyright at all, though? This is going to be an industry standard, not an EMC standard, or an IBM or Microsoft standard. Copyright means you and I and others can't reproduce the document without permission. (It does say "All rights reserved.")

Someone will say "Well, this is the way IETF does it," or "This is the way [XYZ] does it," which of course is silly. That's not a defense. IETF shouldn't copyright anything either.

What does copyrighting a standards document achieve? Is it supposed to prevent bastardization of the standard by someone else who tries to publish a different version of it? That's not what copyright does. Copyright does not establish the "sole authoritative source-ness" of a document. It does not say "This is the Truth, this is the one true document defining the Standard." That's the job of the standards body. OASIS decides what the true CMIS standard consists of. And that "truth" can reside in an uncopyrighted work, just as easily as in a copyrighted work.

Putting copyrights on standards just does not make sense to me. It doesn't achieve anything except to inhibit reproduction and dissemination of the primary docs. Which is usually not a goal of the standards process (or shouldn't be). Standards should be widely disseminated. Copyright is designed to defeat that.

A nit, perhaps. But for me, not.


  1. No, it doesn't make any sense.
    You could also argue that there's no point copyrighting anything that's available on the web - if it's available to all by default.

  2. Well, I suppose that the copyright also makes it harder to alter a standard without going through the standards committee. What would it be like if everybody was to change the standard?

    This was not your facet of view, but I guess it is a way to explain why standards are copyrighted.

  3. tommyboy06: Copyright has nothing to do with making it harder to alter a standard. Copyright merely protects an author's work against unauthorized re-publication. That's all it does. Copyright does not do anything other than that. People often assume (wrongly) that copyright does a lot of other things. In reality it's simply a barrier to reuse.

  4. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Kas, you got me. I'm not a lawyer. That could just be legacy writing from before it was sent to Oasis. I can see them having that on their docs until OASIS owned them as those three built the bulk of the standard.

    I'd love to hear an answer to this one.


  5. Anonymous1:00 PM

    The full copyright notice, in the documents, says the standard, when approved, may be copied freely, with the only restriction being the addition of a notice. In practice, the copyright notice that ends up in OASIS standards seems to serve primarily as a disclaimer (i.e., the standard is offered "as is") and as an invitation to distribution, provided the standard is not modified.

    I think both are good reasons to have a copyright on a standards document, and do not restrict the use of the standard (in fact, you can argue that this copyright, like GNU copyleft, is designed to promote, not restrict, the use of the standard).

  6. Anonymous1:46 PM

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  7. According to the Berne Convention, the copyright exists regardless of whether a notice is on the document. In the US things get weird because the copyright can't be enforced without first registering it with the Copyright office. I've heard lawyers disagree on whether it's legally possible to disclaim copyright in the US (i.e. dedicate to the public domain).

    If you start in that legal environment, it makes sense to put a copyright notice on the standard; but I would prefer that the notice include language allowing free redistribution and even modification of the documents (say, a BSD license). I would prefer this be the case even before the standard is approved, and I would prefer the parties owning the copyright in the current document transfer ownership of the copyright to a standards body after the standard is approved.

  8. The simplest thing to do is drop the copyright. What harm can come of it? Tell me. What harm accrues? To whom?

    Max: Berne furthers my argument. Thank you for bringing it up.

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