Friday, October 24, 2008


(Summary: This paper not only provides legal implications of open format but also explains its advantages, problems and how to make them more popular.
Text of Talk delivered by Justice Yatindra Singh on 09.10.2008 in the Second International Open Document Format User Workshop organised by the E-Documentation committee chaired by South Africa's Department of Home Affairs in collaboration with ODF Alliance at Pretoria.)

It is honour and priviledge, to participate in the 2nd ODF workshop, and to be in South Africa – a country that Indians owe a lot.

One hundred and fifteen years ago (1893), a young 23 years old Indian barrister, took his maiden but fateful South African train journey from Durban. He was coming to Pretoria to defend a legal case. He could not complete the journey that night: he was thrown out of his first class compartment at Peter Maritzburg, despite the fact he had first class compartment ticket. His only fault was that he was coloured. He spent that cold winter night at the railway station but started his journey from Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi to Mahatma Gandhi. It was during his 21 years stay here at South Africa that he realised importance of human dignity and started struggle against racial descrimination; It was here that he realised importance of non-violence (Satyagrah) and started quest for our independence.

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to visit this wonderful country that I always wanted to visit.

Last year, in the first ODF user workshop at Berlin, I started with Gandhi's quote,
'Means are more important than the end: it is only with the right means that the desired end will follow.'
This was to provide philosophical footing to use open formats. His philosophy is deep rooted in law too. Lord Denning, one of the greatest judge of 20th century, in R Vs IRC Exparte Rossminster Ltd 1979 (3) All ELR 385 held,
'But it is fundamental in our law that the means that are adopted ... should be lawful means. A good end does not justify bad means.'
  • The end is dissemination and communication of information; and
  • The means are, how to achieve it, implement it; the kinds of software to use, the kinds of standards to adopt, the kind of formats to employ?
What is Open Format?
Formats are particular way of encoding or a method of storing information so that a computer programme or a device may, understand, reproduce, and, if the need be, render it for modifications.

Formats may be proprietary. They could be,
  • Secret and protected as a trade secret; or
  • Published and yet protected as a patent (as was the gif format for images).
This is not true for open formats. They are,
  1. Documented and published - sufficient to implement them in any computer programme or device.
  2. Made available irrevocably to everyone without any royalty or fee.
  3. Maintained by a neutral body, where decisions are taken with consensus or majority thus catering to the needs of all.
Open formats not only avoid monopoly but encourage healthy competition. Information technology has best flourished in the open standards: the Internet, the web, the protocol transfer are all based on open standards. Apart from other advantages,
  • There is no fear of patents or licensing;
  • Open source software supporting ODF exists for every operating system; they work across the operating systems.
  • The files can never be lost as they will always be accessible.
  • They can be implemented in any software making the users true owners of their files.
In terms of Gandhi's philosophy, open source and open formats are right means and are the key to the future; they will lead us to the desired end. However, this year, I would rather start with another quote of Gandhi,
'You must be the change that you want to see in the world.'
Lead by example: show the world how changes can be effected. This is, what we have done at the Allahabad High Court: we are using open format. The documents are being exchanged open formats.
A typical email send by Court's registry

We are uploading information in many formats but the first one, the original one, is open format.
ODF, despite its advantages, has some glitches. Here are some suggestions to make it more popular:
  1. People/ Government/ Policy makers are neither aware nor understand its importance: More regional conferences may be held to make them aware e.g. in India, e-governance conference is held every year. It is organised by government of India. Other countries may be having similar conferences. The discussion on open formats may be included in such conferences;
  2. Catch them young: Programmes implementing ODF may be included at the school level. Children adopt to new software easily;
  3. Urge governments to enforce IPR.
  4. There should be better support of the regional languages in the programmes implementing ODF: Take the case of Hindi Keyboard. Hindi is written in Devnagri script. It is being standardised in Unicode. SCIM, provides the Hindi keyboard in Linux. The most popular keyboard in Hindi is Remington Keyboard. Yet, this Keyboard was not available until last year in SCIM. Now it has become available but it does not have all characters.
  5. Increase awareness regarding open source applications among the vendors and people: I had delivered a talk titled 'WHERE CAN PENGUINS FLY' on the Software Freedom Day at the University of Allahabad on 20.09.2008. We also distributed a CD containing popular open source programmes on Windows and demonstrated their working. One such programme was suite. The audience was surprised to find suite to be so good and so easy to operate. I was informed that in the computers of the Allahabad University, suite was not taken for the reason that the vendors informed them that this programme is difficult to use. They were surprised to find suite to be so good and so simple to operate.
  6. Use, promote, and popularise open source programmes: All of these have ODF as default option.
  7. Promote use of Linux or any other open source operating system:
    They include open source programmes implementing ODF.
In the first ODF user workshop at Berlin, I had talked about the Aesop's fable - 'The Tortoise and the Hare'. In the story, the tortoise and the hare run a race. The hare took the lead, thought he can always win and decided to rest. He went off to sleep and lost the race. The moral of the story is,
'Slow but steady wins the race.'
However, in recent times, the story has changed, three more races have been run and the moral has changed too.
In the second race, the hare did not rest and won the race easily. The moral changed to,
'It is better to be fast and reliable.'
The course of the third race included a river also. The hare reached upto the river before the tortoise but could not swim. The tortoise reached much after the hare but as he could swim, won the race. The moral changed to
'Everyone has weak and strong points—play on your strong points.'
The fourth and the final race was run on the same course as the third one but was run differently. On the ground, the hare carried the tortoise on his back and on the river, the tortoise carried the hare on his back. The result was that both of them reached the destination quickly, saved time, and enjoyed the race too. The moral is,
'It is best to consolidate strong points.'
This is, what the open formats, open source and open standards do. They,
  • Consolidate strong points;
  • Use the IPR to prevent the hoarding of technology;
  • Invite others to participate in its development.
This is the key, this is the road to the future. However, this year, instead of the tortoise and the hare, I am going to talk about a different story.

Jayant V. Narlikar is a leading Astrophysicist in the word. He has worked with Fred Hoyle and like him writes science fiction. He has written a novel by the name of 'The Return of Vaman'.
The novel revolves around three characters: an archeologist, a physicist, and a computer scientist. The physicist wanted to experiment with gravity and a deep hole was being dug. In the process, the team came across a plaque first and then a cube. They could neither understand the script written on the plaque nor the figures on the cube. It was a perfect cube of unknown substance. They knew that it was from some advanced civilisation. They decided to open the cube but could not make head or tail out of it.
There was a figure on the cube showing two elephants pulling the cube in the opposite direction without any success. They were reminded of an experiment done in the seventeenth century by the German scientist Otto Von Guericke in Magdeburg Germany. He had joined the two copper hemispheres of 51 cm diameter and pumped the air outside. Thereafter 8 horses on each side could not pull them apart. The team realised that the air from the cube has been removed. A thin hole was drilled, the air entered inside, and the cube opened instantly.
It was a time capsule, informing about the advance civilisation that existed twenty thousand years ago. There was no indication as to how it came to an end or what happened to it. The time capsule also informed them how to make an advanced computer. They make it and name it 'Guru'—the teacher.
'Guru' tells them how to make a meter high advance Robot. This robot is like the robot 'Andrew' (starring Robin Williams) in the science fiction film 'Bicentennial Man' (based on the story 'The Bicentennial Man' and the novel 'The Positronic Man' written by Isaac Asimov).
Robin Williams as the robot Andrew in film 'Bicentennial Man'

The robot is named 'Vaman' (वामन) after Hindu mythological story. Vaman, (like Andrew), is extremely advanced; learnt quickly and is able to take independent decisons. But his intentions are different. 'Vaman' keeps on requesting his creators to teach him how to replicate itself so that humanity may be served better. This was not being done. The team was observing caution as there was no trace of the advanced civilisation. A conspiracy was hatched: Vaman gets itself stolen by others on the promise that it will be taught replication.
The answer to the mystery, as to how that advanced civilisation perished, lay in the plaque that was also found. But no one could understand the script. It was only when the script was deciphered that the reason could be known—too many Vamans serving the humanity and what happens if they go on strike. Utopia, if there is one, is end of life. It became imperative to destroy the Vaman so that it may not replicate itself.
This is the broad plot of the novel but the reason that I narrated this story is,
In the physical world, the information lies in the script. Loose the ability to read the script: you loose the information.
In the digital world the information lies in the format. If the format is closed then the information may be lost foreever.
It is better to store information in open format: it is only then we can be sure of owning information. In keeping our office documents in open format, we have taken the right step and I have no doubt that a bright future awaits us.

Free software, information , Information Technology, Intellectual Property Rights, Internet, Internet, Open source software, software, software, technology, technology, Technology, technology, technology, Web,

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