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Open Source Software, Open Standards, Open Content...

What is the difference between Open Standards and Open Source? And what's this Open Content?

Confusingly similar to IT marketing slogans, these concepts could add significant value to your business. This discussion paper looks into what they really mean.

Version 0.5

Last edit Dan 03:24, 9 February 2007 (CST)


Open Standards

If you are a business manager or CIO contemplating investment in IT systems, chances are good suppliers are pitching solutions with the word "Open" all over them. Like "All-New Model" and "Latest Technology" this word is widely abused, often with the intention of obscuring a serious issue. Open Standards are about communicating in a common language, like the Metric System or Standard Spanish, so everything goes more smoothly. Traditionally, large computing technology companies have been reluctant for their customers to use Open Standards. Their logic is that if software is truly compatible across suppliers they will lose business, so instead they condemn customers to a world of incompatibility! Governments, large IT consumers and enlightened technology companies develop and document Open Standards in public. The World Wide Web is the poster child of Open Standards, but many familiar services simply would not work.

It is in your interests to insist on Open Standards for storing, transmitting and securing your data in order to retain control of your information assets.

The opposite of Open Standards are proprietary standards. It is common to publish standards that have usage conditions (involving things such as patents) which means that some people are prevented from implementing them. Such standards are public but are not open.

If you store your information with some other kind of standard, you are vulnerable to pressure from your software supplier. It may be pressure to change, such as upgrading to a new version, or not change, for example not moving to a competing supplier of software. Either way, a supplier can impose their agenda on your company. It is in the interests of traditional software suppliers to promote standards that appear to be open but do not meet the criteron available for use by anyone without permission or fee.

Open Standards can be implemented by anyone who wants to write software with any motivation at all. That is the measure of success for an Open Standard, how widely it is implemented. Open Source Software is a natural fit for implementing Open Standards since both are designed to be freely available, but one does not imply the other in any way.

Example: Office Suite Documents

Millions of people exchange word processor, spreadsheet and presentation documents every day. But can they all talk to one another?

An EU Interoperability body introduces its Office Suite discussion like this:

Did you ever receive a document you could not open? Chances are the sender used a different programme or version than yours to create it. Open document exchange formats avoid users being locked in to particular products or technologies. For administrations this offers greater accessibility to their public-sector information and improved interaction with citizens and business.

There is now an ISO and IEC International Standard (ISO/IEC 26300) open standard that solves exactly this problem, the Open Document Format (ODF). Many public administrations have mandatory or preferred requirements for ODF [1]. Millions of people use the free [] Office suite, which uses ODF by default (although it can read and write legacy formats.)

The current dominant supplier of Office suite software to the Western world is Microsoft. Microsoft are working to publish their Open XML format through a different standards body. Unlike the Open Document Format, Open XML is covered by a licence that imposes restrictions on who can implement the standard and broad patents covering the design of the format. The majority of Open Source software is covered by a licence that conflicts with Microsoft's conditions, and so Open XML cannot be opened by most Open Source Software. As of February 2007 it seems that Microsoft is failing in its efforts to convince standards bodies that their document format is truly open and accessible to all competitors.

Microsoft Open XML is an example of how a standard that appears to be open does not in fact meet the accessible-to-all aspects of the definition and is therefore working against the interests of all but the organisation that imposes the restrictions.

Open Source Software

Source code is what technical people use to create software applications. The source code is not needed to run the program but is required to change how the program operates. "Open Source" is defined at to mean source code with a licence that guarantees source code is always available to everyone.


Traditional software licenses are based on copyright, with extra conditions. These extra conditions are contract terms imposed when people accept the copyright license. Typical clauses say "The User may not try to understand how this software works", and "There is no warranty no matter what."

Copyright law is about exclusion: excluding others from copying, distributing and modifying software. But copyright law also has the power to grant rights to do what would otherwise be forbidden.

The best-known OSS license uses this power to give new permissions rather than add restrictions. Nearly all the restrictions of the copyright system are relaxed especially those to do with copying and modification. The main requirement added requires that any re-distribution of software must be accompanied by the source code, including any modifications made. If you are strictly an IT user and don't distribute software outside your organisation none of this applies except to be aware that this requirement is what drives the development of the software you depend on.

A Virtuous System

Open Source Software is a virtuous system, whereby if people benefit from OSS and change it all other users also benefits from those changes. So long as someone is making improvements to an OSS software tool somewhere in the world, you can get the benefit of the improved tool. Even if the software is old. You need never be forced into a software upgrade again, ultimately there will always be someone to work on OSS even if you have to pay for the work yourself.

Business value:

Open Source Software is good news for you, the business user, but it poses a challenge to your existing software suppliers.

Open Source shifts the focus from the technical features of the program to the business value it offers you, the customer.

With Open Source your business is more likely to have a choice of suppliers, to be able to access data with multiple programs and to be able to devote IT budget to the problems that matter most.

Open Content

Open Content updates an ancient concept, that creative output should be available for copying, sharing and modifying without in any way constraining the commercial goals of the creators. In a modern business context, all businesses consume a great deal of creative content and often generate a lot too. Where the content generated is not core revenue-related IP, and where improved or updated versions of that content would benefit the originator, Open Content can be sound business choice.

Examples of things a modern company may wish to publish for the use and improvement by others are:

  • content for internal training courses. Many companies develop such content, and outside the training profession this is a sunk cost. From HAZMAT handling guides to generic comments on personnel management procedures few companies would describe these as protectable core IP.
  • industry-specific legal templates. Few companies outside the traditional legal profession [2] gain from hoarding these, and there are useful ideas to be gained by reviewing how others approach similar problems.

By the end of the 1990s Open Source Software had demonstrated conclusively that business benefits of applying Copyright law to the reverse of the effect intended since the 1900s. People started thinking about applying the principle to other kinds of works as a way of mimicking the kind of environment in which all creative talent has flourished down the millenia. In 1998 the term Open Content was coined amid legal activity to define what this could be.

There are a range of licenses available including those from the Creative Commons project, where a company can select the degree of control they wish to retain.

This document is published under Open Content terms as described below.


  1. In the five months after ODF became a published open standard in 2006, Belgium, Denmark, the US states of Massachusetts and Indiana, Spanish region of Extremadura and others passed regulations requiring the use of ODF. Dozens of other countries, and the EU, recommend ODF and Malaysia, Indonesia and many more have regulations under development. In the slow-moving world of standards, this represents an extraordinary level of activity.
  2. There are business models for non-traditional lawyers who encourage their customers to reuse existing documents and instead pay the lawyer to do higher-level work.)

Creative Commons License
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This content is licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution ShareAlike License v. 2.5:
GNU head GFDL: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License". ( uses but does not currently recommend the GDFL and here's the explanation why. )
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