Tuesday, October 02, 2007


In response to a discussion list post, in which I called IEEE's policy of charging fees for standards a 'scam'.

Dismissing my perspective on this as 'tribal' misrepresents my actual position. I am aware of the discussion on this list and elsewhere about the open publication of IEEE documents. I am also well aware of the many and nuanced versions of 'open' - including those definitions of 'open' floated by corporate interests in order to obfuscate the discussion. With all of that said, 'scam' is the result of my considered judgment on the matter, not some sort of expression of community affiliation (which, to people who know me, would be laughable).

There is no legitimate definition of 'open' that restricts distribution of a document to those who register and pay a subscription fee. And a process that causes a standard to disappear thusly from public view as soon as it is approved cannot either be called 'open'. As a participant in the creation of the document (however reluctantly) I have been afforded my own personal copy of the PDF version of the standard. But despite the fact that utterly no expense would be incurred by IEEE were I to post it on my website, I am prohibited from doing so. We are presented a scenario where the cost charged to purchasers covers putative expenses, and yet a case where few - if any - expenses exist.

Though it was not the target of my original posting, the process of 'standards building' is one that should certainly be subjected to some examination. No doubt most members of this committee are aware of the dubious votes cast in favour of the (ultimately unsuccessful) ISO standardization of OOXML. I'm pretty sure members of this list could attest to the influence of corporate interests in favour of certain (proprietary) solutions, to the detriment of the community as a whole. Indeed, other members of this list may be representatives of such interests themselves, and will be less concerned with the truth of my remarks than with the suppression of them.

As the members of this list are certainly aware, there are many routes to the creation of standards, including those that ensure that planes fly and food remains safe. It is arguable - and I would argue - that the influence of financially interested parties acts to the detriment of the standards process. Whether or not planes fly is a matter of physics; whether or not food is safe is a matter of biology. These scientific facts should not be amended with lobbying. The result of the corporate influence is that we sometimes get standards that are questionable, based on an unreasoned and political denial of physics and biology. The process is also one that favours corporate interests, the commitment of time and resources being beyond the typical un- or under-funded scientist. We get standards (or 'Recommended Practice') that exist only because some company wanted to push a project; I contend that DREL is one such publication, the 'science' (as it were) of digital rights being far from being established one way or another.

From where I sit, the inaccessibility of the published standards contributes to the gerrymandering of the process by keeping it out of public view. I'm been in and around IMS and ISO and IEEE and the like long enough to have seen this play out repeatedly. When 'agreement' comes to who has the most money to spend to get their way, then we have distorted the process. The only way to fix this starts with open process and open publication, which is why I sometimes appear 'tribal' when expressing my opposition to the status quo.


Response to a comment, posted October 3. Sorry I can't put the comments here, but they're being posted on what is essentially a closed list.

People who know me know that my outrage is not sudden. My opposition to the IEEE policy has been ongoing, and members of this committee have heard its expression from time to time over a number of years.

I find it flattering that your understanding of my position is derived from Richard Stallman. However, open publishing is a bit different from open source. It is a well understood and widely adopted policy. Leading voices include Steven Harnad and Peter Suber. There are thousands of open access journals being published, not to mention millions of other resource under various Creative Commons licenses. The IEEE may not concur - which is why I object - but it is simply and blatantly false that "everybody else" does not concur.

Nothing prohibits IEEE from open publishing. Nothing prohibits it from allowing others to post copies of IEEE standards. The purpose of IEEE is not to make money, despite this representation. It is to create and publicize standards. Something it is currently failing to do effectively because of closed processes and publications.

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