For once, Microsoft was actually in the right

Here I am, a long-time user and advocate of IT openness, now deeply involved through the Canadian Association for Open Source (CLUE) in the promotion of open source and open standards, finding myself in defence of Microsoft. The company that software freedom boosters love to hate has, for once, a brief but legitimate claim at victimization.

At issue is the ability of Microsoft Office 2007 to export documents using the Portable Document Format (PDF). At the time this is written, Redmond has agreed to withdraw the feature after PDF owner Adobe threatened legal action to prevent the export-PDF feature being included at no cost. Adobe argues that allowing Office to natively write PDFs (without an extra cost add-on) constitutes monopolistic activity. Or depriving Adobe of revenue it doesn’t deserve. Or some other unmentioned evil.

There’s one monstrously big problem with Adobe’s argument. The company has worked hard to get the PDF accepted as an international standard — indeed, it has official international endorsement as ISO 19005. Now that it has succeeded in getting such recognition and widespread use for its file format, Adobe now wants to cripple such progress by wanting a piece of Microsoft’s desire to join the club.

The Wikipedia entry for PDF indicates that it’s both an open standard and proprietary to Adobe. To me those descriptions are contradictory — if a format is proprietary, by definition, it isn’t really open. Adobe demands that users of the PDF standard must agree to its licensing terms; while for most people such terms allow royalty-free and (superficially) uncontrolled use, Microsoft has discovered the limits to this freedom.

And yet, the existing exceptions to Adobe’s restrictions are many, such as the popular free software projects that can create PDF documents. Ghostscript has had the ability to work with PDF files for more than a decade, and the only licence I’ve ever agreed to in order to run Ghostscript is the GNU GPL. Most recently, I’ve made heavy use of, whose most recent releases have an “export to PDF” function right in the main toolbar. I never agreed to an Adobe EULA in order to use this feature.

If does well rivalling Microsoft Office — and I hope it will — it shouldn’t be because it can write PDFs for free and MS Office can’t. Open source supporters have always argued that the ability to read and write files in a standard format should never be a competitive advantage, that everyone should be able to do so freely. And, in this case, such freedom must extend to Microsoft as well.

It is unfair and damaging to the installed base of PDF users for Adobe to prevent Microsoft from using this “standard” without paying royalties. If you’re going to go through the efforts to advance something as basic as a file format into a true standard, you shouldn’t be able to prevent multiple and competing implementations. Adobe’s actions should be a warning to potential users of PDF that this “standard” really isn’t.

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