HOWTO: Unchain Yourself from Proprietary Formats

Today being Document Freedom Day, I’m taking stock of how unencumbered my digital lifestyle is — both on the consumption as well as on the production side. I’ll try and explore alternatives for each category. But before that, one must first explore why proprietary and patent-encumbered formats are bad, 

  1. Patents — if some entity holds patents that apply to a format, your ability to distribute your files might be compromised by the need to pay patent royalties. Even if the patent holder covenants not to exercise enforcement of the patents, they or the patents could end up being bought, at which point who knows what could happen. Even Microsoft got into trouble with Alcatel Lucent; the case was later thrown out of court but only after a headline-grabbing $1.52 billion award of damages was initially awarded. And Alcatel is not even a patent troll! Best protection is to use software licensed with a retroactive patent retaliation clause (e.g. Apache license, Eclipse Public License, GNU Public License v3) and whose copyright holders and distributors are in a defensive patent pool such as the Open Invention Network
  2. Format obsolescence — even NASA has had trouble reading precious sensor data from old punch cards and magnetic tapes generated by previous missions, because the documentation for the file formats have been lost!
  3. DRM — Digital Rights, or Restrictions, Management, depending on which side of the coin you’re looking at it from. It’s not impossible to create a DRM policy that is flexible enough to guarantee you your fair use rights you enjoyed with older analog technologies — the printed book, the audio CD — but it’s not in the interest of (most) publishers and distributors to do so. Unless forced by regulation or unless you vote with your wallets.
  4. Walled gardens — remember the pre-Internet days of AOL, CompuServe, etc.? We still have walled networks, they are just built on top of the Internet instead.

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