The secret world of file formats

No matter the communication protocol used to transmit it, most information gets packaged into a file format for consumption. File formats are like virtual checkpoints along the information superhighway, and we would do well to pay attention to who is manning the gates.

We’ve heard a lot of noise lately about the need for “open” file formats, but documenting a file format is not the same thing as relinquishing control of the format. The key consideration is who decides when and how the file format changes. This is a dirty little secret about file formats that you are not supposed to know. By controlling when and how a file format changes, an organization can maintain a mindshare monopoly over consumers of its file format — even when the format is “open”.

It may be that the relative anarchy of the internet has given us a false sense of security. We happily use “open” formats like PDF, DWF, DXF, HTM, and others with relatively little concern about who controls them, but all of those formats (HTM perhaps to a lesser degree) are controlled by corporations whose allegiance is first and foremost to their shareholders. For example, PDF is “open”, but did you know that third party developers need a digital ID signed by Adobe in order to create forms-enabled PDF files that can be opened in the free Acrobat Reader?

In April of 2006, Autodesk filed a trademark application for the word “DWG” when used to refer to DWG files. This may seem benign on the surface, but if successful it will give Autodesk more legal leverage in “defending” the file format. A few weeks ago, Autodesk filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the Open Design Alliance claiming that the ODA infringed their “AUTODESK” trademark by embedding the mark inside DWG files created with its DWGdirect libraries.

Much has been written by the pundits about the pros and cons of the ODA lawsuit, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation predictably suggests that Autodesk is using trademark claims to stymie interoperability, but the bottom line is that the contention centers around a file format — a file format that Autodesk considers valuable enough to wage war over.