Free Formats vs. Open Formats

If you are a loyal reader, you may have noticed that we never use the word “open” near “formats”. Yeah, what’s the story behind that, you ask. Well, we’ll dive into the subject in just a moment, but since I’m known for doing (strange) comparisons while presenting an argument, let’s go ahead and think of a door.

It is open; you can go in and out any time you want, right? Right. Until someone steps in, claims the door as his and tells you you have to pay to get in. Oh, and he (and everyone else) still considers the door open, because you can see what’s on the other side. See, open door, open formats! How could you think of it any other way?

Yeah. So, you probably know some open formats already: MP3, OOXML, Xvid, H.264 and the rest of the MPEG-4 mess. Why are they considered open? Because their specification is, in fact, open, which means you can implement it anywhere you want… if you pay to cross the door. Well, I guess you can’t implement it afer all.

If freedom is catchy, as some people claim, then free formats would have taken over by now, wouldn’t they? I too wish it was that simple. Until recently, there wasn’t an exact distinction between open and free formats, but such distinction is becoming more and more clear. It’s got to the point where the big corps are attacking free formats to protect their investments in the open ones.

As soon as word got out that Theora would be the baseline video codec of HTML 5, a Nokia representative came out of nowhere and vaguely suggested that a submarine patent may be there somewhere. Neither he or Nokia have expanded on this, nor will they. The damage was already done, and Nokia’s investments in 3GPP technology were not wasted. They hadn’t paid all that money in licenses, hardware optimizations and research to make MPEG-4 work on cellphones just to let an upstart that everyone else could implement win the race. No way, ese!

And you likely already know about the whole OOXML debacle. How Microsoft got so afraid of OpenDocument (ODF) that they invested millions and millions on a 6000 page pile of — let’s face it — crap. Pure, pointless crap. To beat another office format. And they bribed every ISO jurisdiction they could. To beat another office format. Because it would mean everyone would use a single format and make Microsoft’s office suite obsolete. No way, ese!

This isn’t anymore about closed vs. open formats, and you don’t need me to rub it in your face. It’s time to leave those non-free formats behind and look forward for a world of interoperability, a world of doors free to trespass in whatever way you want, and where no one will be able to take that freedom away from anyone else.

tl;dr version: Just because something calls itself an open standard, it doesn’t mean it should be trusted. Good standards are free standards, too.

12 Responses to “Free Formats vs. Open Formats”

  1. 1 Patcito

    How about renaming the page to then instead of spreadopenmedia?

  2. 2 Jean-Marc Valin

    Please stop the “free” vs “open” war. Both terms are equally abused when it comes to standard: “open” to mean “we let you see the spec but you need to pay” and “free” to mean “gratis, but closed”. I personally prefer “open standard”, but then again I don’t go bitching about people who use “free”.

  3. 3 Ivo Emanuel Gonçalves

    Jean-Marc, I’m not in a war and even less bitching about it. While open source is a term I don’t like, it has its value as a market word anyone can recognize. Open standards, however, are in pratice different things from free standards and cause confusion leading people to believe, for instance, that Xvid is a-okay, which is not. Since people on the advocacy list mentioned I should explain why they are not all right, I wrote this little piece. And I’ll stop here and refer people to it next time the issue is brought up.

  4. 4 Bogdan

    How about Patcito question with ?
    I take that open standards are available on a RAND policy, and free standards are released to the public under royalty free licenses, is this right?
    00XML falls under open standards due to its questionable OSP terms, right?

  5. 5 Ivo Emanuel Gonçalves

    > How about Patcito question with ?

    Er, no. Open Media is right now a market word perfect to describe our self-appointed mission to free content. “Free Media” sounds like a Walmart discount offer.

    > I take that open standards are available on a RAND policy,
    > and free standards are released to the public under royalty
    > free licenses, is this right?

    Or a patent-free one, yes.

    > 00XML falls under open standards due to its questionable OSP
    > terms, right?

    Among other things, yes.

    Oh, and if it’s not much of a bother, could you add a link to SOM in your blog? That would be much appreciated.

  6. 6 Ivo Emanuel Gonçalves

    Also, I personally would not oppose if someone were to buy and redirect it here. Then, if there ever is a need to switch names… that would be taken care of easily.

  7. 7 Reader


    I like this article very much and would like to translate it into german for publishing it on my website. Is that ok for you?

    Oh and If you want, I could do some german translation of content at

    Greetings from Germany

  8. 8 Ivo Emanuel Gonçalves

    You serious? I’d love to have a German translator for SOM! And yes, you can reuse and change anything from SOM as it’s all under the lowest restrictive license there is from Creative Commons.

  9. 9 zazengate


    I am the “Reader” from above. Decided to use my “offical” nickname and real e-mail adress.

    Sure, I could do some translations for the project, just tell me, what your needs are.
    You can contact me via my e-mail-adress and of course I will take looks in here. :)

  10. 10 shirish

    which advocacy list? A link would be nice.

  11. 11 Matthew

    Found this essay on a Linux podcast, about their use with open formats.

    In short, this long running show, targeted toward people who are already Linux users, claims less than 1% of their listeners take advantage of the Ogg Vorbis audio format over the MP3 files. It is not enough just to demand open formats, people have got to aggressively use them, too. Content providers have to see the format being used by their customers, else they will decide providing the files is not worth the effort.

  1. 1 Boycott Novell » Incompetent Standards Organisation (ISO) Further Criticised, Case Being Independently Built

Leave a Reply