Are Consortium Standards Free?

Are Consortium Standards Free?  I’m looking at the broader issue of standards and public access for my presentation at the SES (the Society for Standards Professionals) Convention in Denver this month.  There are some standards that are made available for no charge.  I reviewed the Mil Specs and Standards set last week.  Today I’m going to take a look at Consortium Standards.

What is a Consortium?  Luckily, one of my co-panelists has a webpage with a detailed answer to this question: Consortium Info Essential Guide.  For our purposes today, let’s just say that a consortium is a group that has joined together to promote a specific technology or technological solution.  They often fast-track the development of standards in a particular area to provide the technical support to get a product or service to market quickly.

Why is a Consortium different that other Standards Developing Organizations (SDOs)?  The consortium process is often called “pay to play.”  That is, the standards system used is not particularly open in the classical standards sense.  It is a system based on the participation of a few key players.  These folks support the activities of the consortium with dues, often rather expensive in comparison with other SDOs.  They are interested in rapid consensus and deployment.  Their mission is to get their standard(s) in use as quickly as possible.

Are consortium standards provided at no charge?  Usually during the development process, consortium standards are not available.  This is primarily in the interests of time (and sometimes business interests as well).  Introducing additional players into the mix can end up in too much input, slowing down the process.  It may also give competing technology advocates a chance to see what is going on in a certain group.  Or give them a chance to derail the consortium’s goals.

However, once consortium standards are adopted and published by the group, they often are available at no charge.  This is to support the mission of the consortia — Wide adoption of the technology as a tool for promotion of the group’s products or solutions.  Let’s think of the original business strategy for the PC industry — Make PC standards open in comparison with Apple closed standards as a tool for increasing marketshare.

So consortium standards are not free — they do take money to develop, as do most of the standards we use.  However, by choosing to make the final publications available at no charge, a consortium is furthering its core mission — adoption of a specific technology.

What happens if a consortium standard is widely adopted?  How is the standard maintained?  This is an issue of standards development that presents a problem for many consortia.  The authoring group is brought together to get a technology adopted.  When it is, the group’s mission has been met.  Usually, at this point the consortium is dissolved.  But about the standard?

Much to the initial suprise of the traditional SDO community, it is at this point that many consortia hand over their publications to another standards organization.  IEEE has been the happy receipient of a number of standards developed by various consortia.  Why?  A traditional SDO is not only geared up to develop standards but also support them throughout their lifecycle.  For example, standards should be able to be revised if technical errors are discovered.  Standards should be reviewed once every 5 years.  Standards need to be distributed to a potentially large audience over a long span of time.  And even when cancelled, they still may be required for legal or regulatory purposes.

And when this transition takes place, does a consortium’s standard still get distributed at no charge?  Usually not.  While the costs for development are borne by the consortium’s organizers, the costs for maintenance are not.  So a traditional SDO who inherits this type of standard usually begins charging for it immediately.

The use of no-charge distribution of standards is a tactical choice for any consortia.  It is a tool to be used to achieve an end.  It can be very effective but does come with a price.  Many of the benefits of traditional standards development (open process, public review, and so on) are not available during the consortia process.  However, in exchange, a consortium will be able to gain consensus quickly, bring a standard to market in a timely fashion, and attempt to gain penetration of the market by open access to the document(s).

For a tranditional SDO, use of no charge distribution should also be considered a tactial choice.  It should be considered when issues of public interest and achievement of organizational goals make a strong business case and the costs of standardization can be covered by means other than standards sales.

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Claudia Bach

Claudia Bach is the President of Document Center Inc. and a world-wide recognized expert on Standards and Standards Distribution. You can connect with her on Google+

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