Open Standards, Closed Minds and Carnivorous Caterpillars

Announcing the answer before knowing and understanding the facts is an increasingly popular pastime. My, but it does get tedious living in a world filled with experts.

The New York Times is once again a source of metaphorical inspiration for me on the topic of open standards, and this time it’s negative inspiration. Another source of such head-shaking for me today is a jeremiad focused on the same Sunday NYT article that served as the jumping off point for my last Blog entry, entitled Why Bill Gates Wants 3,000 Patents This one comes from Greg Aharonian, a commentator on patent issues, in his free Internet Patent News Service which, besides presenting information from a wide variety of sources regarding patents, includes “biting commentary if I happen to be in a lousy mood that morning.” (Access is by free subscription)


Let’s start with the fun one, a brief piece in Tuesday’s Science Times section called Caterpillars that Could Use Herb Butter (there is no current working link). The main point here is not that there are caterpillars on Maui that trap and eat snails, but the reaction of a scientist as described in the article when confronted with the reality of the voracious, 1/3 inch nemesis of gastropods. The following is quoted from the short Times item:

When Dr. Rubinoff…first heard about these caterpillars from naturalists on Maui, he didn’t imagine that they were actually eating snails. He took some caterpillars to his lab and tried feeding them carrots, algae and lichens, but they refused everything. Then he gave one a small land snail. [emphasis added]

Well, you can figure out what happened next. But not the good Dr. Rubinoff, who of course had only been told that this would happen by naturalists that were familiar with the creature. Instead, he “knew” that the caterpillar would not actually eat the snail. The article continues: “At first he didn’t believe what he was seeing. ’I thought it was a freak individual,’ he said.”



Well, that would be the most likely explanation — a freak event that conforms to a description from a knowledgeable and reputable source. What a coincidence!




After watching other caterpillars weave cocoons around snails and then eat their captives alive (one caterpillar ate five snails in five days), Dr. Rubinoff and his co-author finally accepted reality, shouted Eureka! and wrote their “discovery” up for the prestigious journal Science .




Now let’s look to the more mundane “biting commentary” (read: screed) by Gregory Aharonian, who obviously did not jump out of bed Sunday morning yelling “Huzzah!” Instead, he refers to the “3,000 Patents” piece as a “parody of historical journalism” written, as he repeatedly notes, by “Randall Stross (who ?????)” True, Aharonian out-scores Stross at Google by more than two to one, but Stross still pulls a respectable 4, 850 hits. Regardless, suffice it to say that Mr. Aharonian takes exception with Stross’ opinion that software shouldn’t be patented, and presents detailed historical support for his position, showing why events are transpiring in what he believes is a predicitable and appropriate fashion.




Just to round out the picture, I’ll reference David Berlind’s series of posts on the relation of open standards to open source. In his most recent post in this series he refers to one standards group (OASIS) with 85 active technical committees as a “so-called standards consortium” because its intellectual property rights policy does not mandate that all of its standards meet open source requirements (never mind that many of its standards are not of interest for open source applications).




All right, so what’s my point?




Only this: if there are two widely held positions, each side is probably aware of facts, needs and insights that have some validity and value to stakeholders that need to be understood and accommodated to some appropriate extent, lest more harm than good be achieved (I obviously exclude racism and other bias-based beliefs from this proposition). Sometimes, that harm can even be to yourself (e.g., if you are a snail and refuse to believe that caterpillars can eat snails, I would suggest that you drop Maui from your vacation plans).




One thing that every law student was taught from day one of law school when I was there was not to assume anything until you know as much as possible, and not to bring pre-conceived notions to the table. First, you deconstruct the situation, then you analyze it, then you come up with appropriate conclusions. In the case of legal holdings, these conclusions are expected to evolve over time.




This is something that has not been done in any of the situations described above. To review:


  • Our entomologist friend “knew” that caterpillars can’t be carnivorous (never mind what other professionals already familiar with the species told him)


  • Our patent professional “knows” that patents must be the way to go with software, because he has a deep knowledge of patent history and lives in a world where patents are how you manage things, and always will


  • Our NYT journalist “knows” that patents must not be awarded for software inventions, because he’s decided that this is a good thing without (as contended by Aharonian) looking into whether that conclusion is supported by history


  • Our ZDNet journalist “knows” that the thousands of standards development organizations, some of which have been around for over 100 years, must throw away their definitions of open standards and conform to what the new open source orthodoxy requires, because he believes that anything that is necessary to facilitate the emergence of open source must be done

All of these individuals, by the way, are extremely bright people that make excellent points to support their arguments.


Personally, I’m an avid open source fan; I agree that open standards and open source need to be brought into alignment (where necessary, and not where they don’t intersect); I’m not a fan of software patents as they are today (and perhaps software patents at all); I’m trying to encourage both camps to listen to each other and understand each others’ positions (and valid concerns); and I’m interested in finding the best solution, rather than a specific solution.


Most importantly, I’m committed to understanding the situation before I think I “know” what the answer should be.


My, but it does get tedious living in a world filled with experts.


* * * * *P.S.: You can now add comments to these posts, so please help me along the road in my quest for perfect enlightenment.