Are MIL Specs and Standards free? Should all standards be free? How should we pay for the development and maintenance of standards? These are some of the questions that I’ll be talking about at the SES (Society for Standards Professionals) convention in August. As the standards community reflects on the impact of technology, questions about copyright are front and center. It’s a basic Internet question: Should information be free?
Let’s take a look at the DoD system of standards. They are correctly referred to as public domain documents. This means that they are not covered by the laws of copyright. You can use them at no charge but they are paid for by U.S. taxpayer dollars. So to answer our question “Are MIL Specs and Standards Free?” we must say no, they are not free. However, the costs are not borne by the user but by the public at large.
How has this worked out? Is this a model that industry should use? Why was this system developed and what has it accomplished?
DoD specs and standards were developed to support the purchasing needs of the U.S. military. Since government purchasing can have an impact on jurisdiction communities, it has to meet both practical and political needs. It has spawned great successes and some well-documented failures.
Back in the day, I saw some shortcuts to good practices in the areas of authoring. For example, one of our customers was requested to write a mil spec for an electrical component. He added requirements that made his company the sole supplier for the item. How could this happen? The military standardization program just didn’t have enough resources to write all that documentation necessary in-house. So on occasion it enlisted the help of the vendors themselves, with mixed results.
Other authoring and distribution challenges exist. Finding appropriate tools for authoring and for conversion of legacy documents has been expensive. The problems of providing paper copies have thankfully been resolved with the use of pdf delivery. However, helping mil spec customers keep up with changes continues to be problematic.
Another issue created by this use of an exclusive set of documentation is certification. In the past, visits to thousands of suppliers were needed to make sure products met the requirements. Now with the adoption of the ISO 9001 requirements, third party certification has a place in the procurement system.
The development of a standards program specifically for government procurement did lead to purchasing scandals in the past. Dr. Perry’s Mil spec reform in the 1990’s was an effort to reduce the DoD standards collection to a set comprised of military-only requirements. For all widely available products, the military and other federal level purchasers moved to the use of industry standards. So, much of the burden of cost of standardization is no longer paid for by taxpayers. And now military purchasers have the ability to purchase goods in the open marketplace which saves even more millions of dollars.
The old DoD standardization program did have one shining benefit: The standards set was widely used thoughout industry. This penetration of the marketplace was an unintended side effect of the no charge availability of the documents to users. When the DoD decided to cancel many of their publications during MIL Spec reform, it was a real blow to many standards users. While most companies moved to industry specs, there is a significant number that stopped using standards altogether.
Of course, when it comes to standards, some developers are interested in fast adoption of a new technology. In these cases, no charge distribution is a real plus. But for many traditional standards developers, their documentation supports less “sexy” applications. In these cases the funding for the transparent development and maintenance of their standards may be best achieved by selling the documents themselves.
The standardization community like other content creators will have to deal with many questions regarding copyright and the distribution of information moving forward. Many of our common public issues like the promotion of trade, the health and safety of our population, environmental stewardship, and interconnectivity of products can be solved with the use of standards. Finding a way to promote the use of proven solutions provided by standardization is one factor. Finding a way to support the uncompromised development of this data is another.