Eating Our Seed Corn: A Standards Parable For Our Time

This paper was written and presented at the 2005 Yale Law School “Information as Flow” Seminar by Carl Cargill, Principal Scientist at Adobe Systems.  It has since been updated and modified by the author. Link to full paper is here.

Abstract: This paper presents a gloomy review of the current standardization regimes in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector as methods of providing technological governance which are responsive to either social or national needs. Over the last quarter century, voluntary Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs) have become dominated by large multi-national corporations, and have increasingly changed to serve their new masters. This change has had a beneficial side, such as the unfettered creation of the World Wide Web. It also has its darker side, as evinced by the current debate that is raging on the role of intellectual property and standardization. On a positive note, governments are now beginning to comprehend the power of standardization as a tool to help set industrial policy. Unfortunately, there are very few sources of expertise available to the policy makers on the phenomena of voluntary standards setting.  However, the lack of expertise in how to deal with this phenomenon called voluntary standardization has not stopped the need for intervention. It is the contention of this paper that voluntary standardization, absent governmental intervention, will become a balkanizing force in the spread and growth of technology.

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