Open Standards

Minimum characteristics of open standards

There is no one definition of what makes a standard ‘open’. As a minimum, we recommend that digital content creators and managers look for software, hardware, schemes, and formats that have the following three open characteristics:

  1. The description and specification for the standard is publicly documented and available.

  2. The standard can be implemented or used free of any royalties, contracts, or patent licence fees.

  3. The standard is in common or mainstream use, including by organisations with long-standing reputations.

These characteristics require more than just popular use – for example, Microsoft’s Word .doc format and Fraunhofer’s .mp3 format are both proprietary format standards despite their popularity (while the less popular OpenDocument format and Ogg Vorbis format are open format standards). While the TIFF image format is owned by Adobe Systems Incorporated, it is publicly documented, free of royalties and in common use, giving it a sufficient degree of openness for it to be recommended.

Ideal characteristics of open standards

In addition to the above minimum characteristics, open standards are ideally:

  • in common or mainstream use in multiple countries

  • endorsed or approved by a formal standards body (e.g. ISO, W3C)

  • issued and maintained by a non-profit body independent of commercial or pecuniary interests

  • developed and agreed by a consensus of interested parties.

In practice, it can take many years for open standards to emerge that have all of the ideal characteristics, and even longer for them to be supported in software and hardware. Furthermore, as patents expire, some published proprietary standards can effectively become open.

In the Make it Digital guides, we have focused on identifying standards that meet the minimum characteristics of openness described above. In some cases however, it will be difficult or impossible to follow an open standard. Good documentation and common use – often characteristics of ‘industry’ standards – may then have to be a necessary compromise until an open standard emerges.