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18 February 2012, 12:15

New EU-level spat over open standards

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European Parliament logo The European parliament is currently consulting on a wide-ranging draft European Commission regulation on European standardisation. Voting in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, which is spearheading the legislation, is set to take place in March. The initiative is intended to create a comprehensive, effective, broadly applicable standardisation system. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure (FFII) has criticised the proposal as paving the way for standards which are poorly compatible with open source software.

A reform of the existing piecemeal European standardisation framework is, according to an FFII paper on the Commission's proposal, long overdue. Their analysis claims that current regulations are not designed for specifications for software interfaces or data formats. According to the FFII, the proposal would mean accepting standards from international consortia licensed under FRAND (Fair Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory) terms and conditions.

Under this approach – supported by industry associations such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and members including Apple, Microsoft and SAP – the use of standardised and in some cases patented technologies would have to be licensed. Open source organisations fear that the Commission's plans would mean approving standards sponsored by "patent cartels". The FFII believes that the Commission is setting the bar for recognising standards at a very low level.

Instead, according to the FFII, MEPs should mandate the use of genuinely free and open standards in which any potential patents are made irrevocably available free of charge. It believes this is the only way to create interoperable platforms and to dismantle barriers to market entry. The FFII also has harsh words for the Commission's plan to give itself the power to amend criteria for recognising standards relatively easily and at any time.

It is a dispute which has bubbled up previously, most recently over revisions to the EU framework on ensuring interoperability of e-government services. In 2010, the Commission eventually decided on a compromise which permitted potential patent rights relating to standards to be licensed either under FRAND conditions or to be licensed royalty free in a manner which "allows implementation in both proprietary and open source software". The aim was to strengthen competition between suppliers of products, technologies and services by means of standards based on both of these very different business models.

(Stefan Krempl / djwm)

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