Slashdot recently linked to this rather strange article by Melanie Wyne against the OpenDocument standard. She’s apparently executive director of the The Initiative for Software Choice, a group funded by many large and small companies, seemingly to combat recent moves by governments to specify open source solutions as part of their procurement processes.
Her article is puzzling, as is the website for the Initiative for Software Choice. She said:
But there’s also something bigger going on. It points to a perfect storm that can’t be good for those who depend on intellectual property, or IP, to prosper.
Yes, it does, doesn’t it? The problem is that the oncoming storm is unavoidable. If you are a company who is dependent on intellectual property to prosper, I might suggest that you start worrying about your business model.
What’s puzzling is Wyne’s stand on the OpenDocument standard. After all, one of the main thrusts of the Initiative for Software Choice is to promote open standards for document interchange. Microsoft could just adopt this standard in the line of Office products and could conceivably battle it out in the market place on the basis of having one of the most widely used office suites on the planet. But they don’t want to do that. Curious. One can only imagine that it is because whatever their stated purposes are, the real purpose behind them is to protect the markets of their member companies against intrusion by new competitors.
It reflects the currently fashionable idea that confiscatory government policy must be used to even the score (whatever that means), thrusting highly demanded, privately risked IP out of the hands of legitimate property owners and into the hands of other, favored actors to further “develop” it.
It seems odd to me that she’s complaining about the confiscatory nature of government regulation that would suck the IP of companies back into the public domain when, in fact, it was a confiscatory policy of government to grant intellectual property rights at all. The underlying philosophy of this group seems to be “if it helps our members it’s a virtue, otherwise, it’s a vice.” That’s not a philosophy that has paid benefits to society as a whole.
Secondly, the OpenDocuments standard doesn’t reassign any intellectual property rights. It is an attempt by the government to ensure that the citizenry will have good access to the documents produced by them in the course of their governmental duties by establishing a highly interoperable format for the exchange of office information. Nothing about this really falls under the kind of “innovation” that intellectual property law really was meant to cover. The precise format the Word uses to save documents really isn’t very important, unless of course, you have to use it. Then, the secret of how Word files are organized has to be worth at least $200 to you (the going rate for Word disks on amazon). Microsoft is gambling that it will be worth it to you because they already have a huge lead in this market. I think they are betting unwisely. Office suites like OpenOffice may not be quite as nice, but they are capable, and are likely to undercut Microsoft significantly in terms of price.
If you are an IP holder, stop your whining. Protect your rights that you have under the law, that’s fine. But many of you are like the buggy whip manufacturers of old. Open source software and standards are helping to accelerate the downward trend of costs for computation and communication, and you better have some idea about how you are going to survive in the world when you begin to get clamped out of these traditionally lucrative but suddenly marginal markets.