Laurent Liscia, OASIS

With the rise of the post-war information and communications era, a new kind of standard emerged, one that would ensure the inter-operation of technologies from different countries. Ken Krechmer, Fellow at the International Center for Standards Research University of Colorado at Boulder, calls this a “compatibility standard.” (For Ken’s excellent model describing the evolution of standards, go to:

If you were going to call France from the United States, the person on the other end should be able to dial your number, hear you and speak to you. Technology standards enabled global commerce, but they were seen by the companies that manufactured such technologies as an opportunity to make money: they were perfectly willing to turn their proprietary systems into a publicly available way of doing business—for a fee. That’s how monopolies are created of course, and every dominant company in the ITC industry is guilty of wanting to be one and succeeding to some degree.

One way around these monopolies was to make standards more of a public object, which is how “de jure,” or “legally mandated” standards bodies were created. In time, nations sent civil servants and engineers to places like ISO, which was established in 1947, to solve international interoperability problems; or nationally, places like AFNOR in France, DIN in Germany, BSI in the UK, ANSI in the US to agree on that minimum which needed to be known and shared for things to work together.

Such standards were seen by private companies as a necessary evil, and as the unwanted step-child of the patent. With patents you could innovate and get paid for it; you could dominate markets with inventions, and you would guard these trade secrets with your life. With standards, you had to disclose at least a portion of the inner workings of your products, and the only reason you would do this would be to avoid the chaos of incompatible technologies—the Baltimore fire all over again. But doing business with governments also made money, so complying with government-mandated standards turned into a nice little habit.

In any case, compliance, while cumbersome, was not any skin off of anyone’s nose, because it didn’t require that secrets be given away or that patent revenue be foregone. One consequence of the rise of the de jure bodies was the urge private companies felt in the 70s and 80s to form their own trade associations or consortia as a counterweight. Such “de facto” organizations introduced a culture of wary cooperation between mostly hardware manufacturers—like so many gentleman’s clubs where club members politely played gin rummy together. Of course, any game played in these ad hoc clubs had to emulate the rules that prevailed in the marketplace, namely a desire to be paid for one’s patent. Which is why most of the standards devised by these ad hoc bodies recognized one and only one kind of intellectual property rights: the “reasonable” sort.

What reasonable meant at the time is that the gentlemen’s standards club would charge whatever it deemed the market could reasonably bear for its standards. Later, the reasonable was augmented by “and non-discriminatory,” as a nod to anti-trust legislation, although no one was ever able to figure out how not to discriminate against newer entrants. Reasonable and non-discriminatory, or RAND, remains as of this writing the dominant IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) mode in most hardware standards bodies. We shall return to this critical point

[in a subsequent installment of this series].

Click here to read Part 1 of Laurent’s six part series.

***Please look for the third article in Laurent’s six part series on the topic of Standards and Innovation in next months issue of Information Management News.***