Distributing free, open, and license-free document formats

Ian! D. Allen - idallen@idallen.ca - www.idallen.com

updated July 15 2017

1 You sent me a file in a secret document formatIndexup to index

I have received from you a file encrypted in a Microsoft proprietary (trade secret) file format, e.g. Excel, Word, PowerPoint, etc. I would like to read what you say, but your chosen format makes this expensive, difficult, and possibly illegal unless I buy a license from Microsoft.

1.1 Proprietary Format vs. Open FormatIndexup to index

Microsoft proprietary document formats are not like open and published public document formats such as Plain Text, web pages (HTML), Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format), Open Document XML, or even Microsoft RTF (Rich Text Format). They are proprietary unpublished trade secrets owned and exclusively controlled by Microsoft USA. The format is not public; nothing other than software licensed by Microsoft USA knows exactly how it works.

Software licensed from Microsoft USA is the only software that can properly decode the secret proprietary document formats; though, other companies try with varying degrees of incompatible success.

In contrast, anyone can use and decode any of the published, public standards for free. (See “Public Standard Document Formats” below.)

1.2 Expensive to DecodeIndexup to index

When you send a file encoded in this secret and proprietary way, you require me (and all your readers) to have purchased the appropriate license from Microsoft USA to read it correctly. Only Microsoft-licensed software can do this accurately, and the licenses will cost us several hundred dollars each. Your document is too expensive to read!

I have chosen not to buy Microsoft USA licenses to read your document.

1.3 Reverse-engineering isn’t accurateIndexup to index

People sometimes ask what is wrong with circulating documents in the expensive Microsoft proprietary formats, since some free software can now read some of it.

There are some non-Microsoft programs that do try to decode the secret Microsoft proprietary document format by guessing at what the format is. My free Linux system has programs like this, so I can often read parts of some Microsoft documents; though, the fonts are often wrong and the spacing and pagination are worse.

Trying to reverse-engineer these Microsoft formats is a waste of resources, and the result is often unusable.

1.4 Illegal to DecodeIndexup to index

Non-Microsoft decoding of proprietary documents isn’t guaranteed to work (since only Microsoft knows what the real format is), and recent laws in the USA such as the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) have made illegal the decoding of, or the attempt to decode, or the posession of programs that might be used to decode, some kinds of proprietary document formats.

“Microsoft executives stated an intention to use various methods to obstruct the development of free software: specifically, designing secret protocols and file formats, and patenting algorithms and software features.”
“Microsoft Office 2007 uses by default a format based on the patented OOXML format. (This is the one that Microsoft got declared an”open standard” by political manipulation and packing standards committees.) The actual format is not entirely OOXML, and it is not entirely documented. Microsoft offers a gratis patent license for OOXML on terms which do not allow free implementations. We are thus beginning to receive Word files in a format that free programs are not even allowed to read.”

Unlicensed programs that attempt to decode these patented Microsoft document formats may already be illegal.

2 Digital Rights ManagementIndexup to index

Some of the electronic world, led by Microsoft, is moving to employ patented and proprietary “digital rights management” (DRM) software that will limit our ability to communicate freely with one another. Microsoft already owns the document format you are using; versions of this proprietary format are encrypted or patented in such a way that I cannot read it legally without buying a Microsoft license.

Money sent to purchase Microsoft licenses goes into upcoming features such as “trusted computing” that will eventually deny you the ability to read or publish unless you pay Microsoft to do so, and unless your readers pay every time for the rights to read your documents.

This is the precursor to a very non-free world where we can only read documents if we pay royalty fees every time we open the document.

The right to read in a New World Order a cautionary tale.

3 Document Too Big!Indexup to index

You have sent me an entire (huge) word processor document, as if you expected me to want to edit your document to change the font or line spacing or paragraph style. I don’t. I just want to read what you said. I don’t need a huge word processor document just to read your words.

Typically the text inside your huge Word file is only 10% of the document. If you cut-and-paste just the text, it is one-tenth of the size.

Please send me a smaller document format that just expresses what you said. I don’t need to edit it; I just want to read it.

4 Does not play well with othersIndexup to index

In both the USA and Europe, Microsoft has been convicted of illegal, anti-competitive, and monopolistic business practices designed to suppress competition and limit the choices we have to communicate with one another.

The world is not a better place if we distribute documents in this proprietary format that supports serious corporate misbehaviour.

5 Public Standard Document FormatsIndexup to index

Many open and public document formats are not the proprietary trade secrets of corporations. You can publish documents in these formats and nobody has to buy a license to read them. These public formats include:

Anyone can read or write documents in these open formats. None of the formats require you to buy a license or expensive software to read or write them.

Our future ability to communicate freely depends on keeping our words in public and open standard formats that are not controlled by who can afford to buy the licenses to read them.

I don’t particularly care what you use to edit and prepare your documents. When you distribute them, please distribute them in a public, open format that everyone can read freely.

6 Appendix I - Microsoft patents its proprietary file formatsIndexup to index

Microsoft makes moves to disallow others from reading its file formats:

“This analogy can help non-programmers see what software patents do. Software patents cover features, such as defining abbreviations in a word processor, or natural order recalculation in a spreadsheet. Patents cover algorithms that programs need to use. Patents cover aspects of file formats, such as Microsoft’s new formats for Word files. […] The way to prevent software patents from bollixing software development is simple: don’t authorize them.”

“In a potentially related move, Microsoft filed for a series of patents related to Microsoft Office file formats. These patents”cover word processing documents stored in the XML (Extensible Markup Language) format. The proposed patent would cover methods for an application other than the original word processor to access data in the document.”

Naturally, a concern is that these patent applications could lead to interoperability barriers between Microsoft Office and competing suites. Microsoft has recently downplayed this possibility, though, claiming these moves are just standard procedures many businesses employ. Yet, if these tactics are so routine, why did Microsoft opt for these patents in New Zealand and Europe first, and not here in the U.S.? These patents, combined with the existing DRM features of Office 2003, are controversial at best, anticompetitive at worst.”


“[…] the patents could create a barrier to competing software, said Rob Helm, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft.

“This is a direct challenge to software vendors who want to interoperate with Word through XML,” he said. “For example, if Corel wanted to improve WordPerfect’s support of Word by adopting its XML format…for import/export, they’d probably have to license this patent.”

7 Appendix II - free, standards-based Open Office softwareIndexup to index

Our future ability to communicate freely depends on keeping our words in public and open standard formats that are not controlled by who can afford to buy the licenses to read them. Here’s word processing software that plays fair (even on Windows):

Mission Statement
To create, as a community, the leading international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data through open-component based APIs and an XML-based file format.

Quiz: Complete the sentence,“OpenDocument is …”

  1. An open, XML-based file format.
  2. An open standard, supported by the OASIS and ISO standards groups.
  3. The default file format for OpenOffice.org 2.0 and KOffice 1.4.
  4. A top prospect for an official format for the European Commission.
  5. Our best chance to fight vendor lock-in associated with proprietary formats.
  6. All of the above.

The correct answer is (f) All of the above.

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