Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 6: May 2004

The Good Stuff

Walt Crawford

Caplan, Priscilla, “Patents and open standards,” Information Standards Quarterly 14:4 (October 2003), available as a white paper at

This white paper grew out of an incident during the development of Z39.88, OpenURL. Two years into the committee’s work, NISO learned that a company had filed a patent application for a method of link resolution—and the company’s president was a member of the committee. The president (Eric Hellman of Openly) maintained that the claims in the patent weren’t essential for OpenURL and that he’d be happy to grant no-cost licenses for the technology. The incident raised questions about open standards: Can true standards, such as those developed by NISO, be developed and implemented properly when patents may interfere?

The OpenURL situation isn’t unique. Some time after JPEG was adopted as a standard, a small company acquired an older company that had filed a patent for the compression technology in JPEG—and the new company wanted royalties from every company implementing JPEG compression (except for satellite broadcasting). Unless the JPEG committee can challenge the claim, ISO may withdraw JPEG as a standard.

This paper raises the key question: Does patented intellectual property ever belong in open standards (true technical standards, as opposed to “industry standards” and the like)? Some writers say that this is only workable if the patents can be licensed at no cost; others object to any licensing requirement as part of standards implementation. ISO and IEC don’t bar such inclusions, even with costs, as long as licenses can be obtained under “reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.” ANSI has a similarly lax requirement. The situation is more complicated with some Internet-related standards bodies. The brief paper concludes that NISO needs an explicit patent policy—and that such a policy won’t close the discussion as to whether patents with priced licenses (“RAND licenses,” for reasonable and non-discriminatory) have any place in NISO or any other open standards.

On September 25, 2003, the NISO Board of Directors adopted such a policy, seeking to avoid embedded patents whenever possible.

Scigliano, Eric, “Ten technologies that refuse to die,” Technology Review February 2004.

Remember paper? It was great in its time, but that time long since passed. Right?

Scigliano offers a list of “venerable survivors” that have seemingly been “surpassed and superseded…written off as road kill on the highway of progress,” but that have survived not as cult artifacts but because they fill real needs.

Here’s the list, without his discussions: Analog watches, dot-matrix printers, typewriters, broadcast radio, pagers, reel-to-reel tape, vacuum tubes, fax machines, mainframe computers, and Fortran.

It’s an interesting list. Analog watches simply do what they do more elegantly than digital watches—you can see that “it’s about five of three” faster than you can make out “2:54:45” and interpret it. “In the end, how a device performs its essential job matters more than its extra functions.” Dot matrix printers (that is, impact dot matrix, since nearly all modern printers use matrices of dots, including lasers and inkjets) make no sense for PCs but are great for high-speed, cheap, reliable back-office printing. And so on. A fascinating read.

Shirky, Clay, “Fame vs fortune: Micropayments and free content,” (Originally published September 5, 2003.)

Shirky believes that new micropayment schemes will fail just as earlier ones have, not simply because of poor implementation but because “the trend towards freely offered content is an epochal change, to which micropayments are a pointless response.” To some extent, this is a “content wants to be free” view—but there may be more than that.

Shirky notes that many creative types (using the broadest sense of “creative”) are more interested in being “famous”—that is, widely read—than in being well-compensated for their creativity. But Shirky also believes that online content has high substitutability—you’ll read something else if there’s any barrier to reading one thing, even if the first thing is better. If that’s true (and it may be), it’s a sad commentary.

Does this mean all content becomes free? No, but it suggests that for-fee content will either come via subscription (magazines, online services) or in physical chunks that add value to online equivalents (books, DVDs, sometimes CDs), although Shirky only mentions subscriptions.

That there’s a shift in the overall “publishing” world is undeniable. Is Shirky right? I’m not sure, but he’s worth reading and thinking about. And, of course, the price is right.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 6, Whole Issue 49, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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