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About the File Format Specifications

In preparing this book, we have made a monumental effort to collect, all in one place, the myriad graphics file format specifications that have until now been floating on the Internet--hiding in the basements of various organizations, gathering dust on individual application authors' bookshelves and in their private directories. We've done our best to locate the specifications and their caretakers (perhaps the original author, and perhaps the vendor that now maintains or at least owns the specification) and to obtain permission to include these documents on the CD-ROM. In most cases, we have been able to obtain permission, but in some cases we have not.

There were several reasons for our failure to gain permission, some simple and some more complex. Although neither of us is a lawyer (or a bureaucrat!) or particularly interested in legal issues, we did encounter some legalities while gathering these specifications. Given our special perspective on the world of graphics file formats, we want to share our reactions to these legalities with you--perhaps in the hope that we'll see fewer problems in the future.

Here are the reasons why we couldn't include certain format specifications on the CD-ROM; here, we use the word caretaker to indicate either the author or owner of the specification or the organization that now has responsibility for its maintenance or distribution.

  • We couldn't find the caretaker. We simply couldn't find out who owned the specification of some of the formats we knew about. This may or may not have been the vendor's fault, but try as we did, we just couldn't find the information. Here's where you can help us. If you know of a format that you yourself find useful, let us know what it is and how you think we might be able to obtain permission to include it in a future edition of this book.

  • The caretaker couldn't find the specification. Strange, but true. This happened twice. To be honest, these were both small companies. But still. . .

  • We couldn't get past caretaker bureaucracy. In some cases, we simply couldn't get through to the correct person in the organization in many months of trying. We know it's hard to believe. It seems that you could walk into any installation and in a few minutes figure out who knows what and where they are. We thought so too before we started this project. In fact, executive management at several vendors professed a willingness to provide us with information, but simply couldn't figure out how to do so. Here too, maybe our readers can help. . .

  • The caretaker wouldn't allow us to include the format. In some cases, we found this reasonable. One obvious case was the BRL-CAD specification, which is massive and readily available. The U.S. government will send it to you if you ask for it. Other companies prefer to license the information as part of a developer's kit. Still others wished to restrict the currency of older formats, presumably so they wouldn't be bothered by users calling them up about them. Although we are philosophically in disagreement with vendors in this latter group, we are willing to admit that they have a point. Some companies, however, feel that releasing information on their formats would somehow give their competitors an advantage or would otherwise be to their own disadvantage. We hope they'll change their minds when they see how many other formats are represented here and how useful this compendium is to everyone--programmers and vendors alike. Finally, several vendors have taken the most extreme position that information on their formats is proprietary and have used legal means to prevent developers from working with them. This last case is the most alarming, and we discuss it further below.

We find it hard to understand why vendors have patented their formats and/or used contract law arguments to restrict access to information on their formats. It seems obvious enough to us--and to others in the industry--that the way to get people to purchase your products is to make them easy to work with, not only for users, but for developers, too. Historically, this has been the case. Vendors who locked up their systems necessarily settled for a smaller share of the market.

Although some vendors seem nearly paranoid, we suspect that the majority that restrict their formats don't have a clear idea what they're selling. This is particularly true for vendors of large, vertically integrated systems, where the format plays a small, but key, role in the overall product strategy.

Nevertheless, whether justified in our view or not, the restriction is real and serves as an alarming and dangerous precedent. As the various parts of the computer industry converge, competition for market share is necessarily increasing. There is a tendency for entities in the business to grow larger and more corporate. What one company does, its competitors must do to stay in the market. At least they consider doing it.

Now, the reality of the situation is that no vendor can restrict information totally and indefinitely. This is particularly the case with file formats. Vendors generally seek to protect their formats through a combination of encryption and legal remedies. However, a person who buys the application which produces the restricted format as output buys a generator of an infinite number of samples. Because applications are judged, among other things, by the speed with which they produce output, and because encryption and obfuscation schemes take time to both implement and use, not much time and effort has gone into making formats unbeatable. To date, encrypted and obfuscated formats have been pretty easy to crack.

An example that comes to mind is Adobe's Type 1 font format encryption. This was used by Adobe to protect its font outlines, but knowledge of the encryption scheme was fairly widespread in certain commercial circles before Adobe publicized it. Whether this resulted in commercial losses to Adobe from piracy of their outlines is hard to say. It certainly generated a good deal of ill will in the industry and ultimately proved futile.

This being the case, some vendors have taken to the courts to protect their formats. We find this behavior futile and ill-conceived. Even if it has a short-term benefit on revenues, the long-term losses due to a restricted market and developer ill-will seem to outweigh this benefit. In a sense, it is a form of monopolistic behavior, or certainly a type of positioning designed to support future monopolistic behavior.

Now, it's a fact of life that almost every format that has made it to the market has been reverse-engineered. This has seldom been for profit--more for the challenge. If you truly have a need to track down the information, it's certain that it can be found through the Internet, provided the information exists.

Is it legal to possess this information? This isn't clear at this time. Certainly it's illegal if the information was stolen from a vendor prior to publication. We, by the way, know of no instance where a restricted format has ever been stolen from a vendor. If you use or publicize information a vendor has tried to restrict legally, however, you run the risk of becoming involved in the legal affairs of the vendor, regardless of how that information was obtained. We do wish to point out that the legal way to influence the behavior of a commercial entity is in the marketplace.

The best-known vendor in recent years that has tried to restrict developers, through legal means, from obtaining information on its format is Kodak in the case of Photo CD, as we describe in the Kodak Photo CD article in Part Two.

In summary, although we could not include information on several of the formats we might have wished to, that information is almost surely available somehow for you to study so you'll understand more about format construction. However, if the format is legally restricted, you probably can't use it in your application, and there's no use thinking otherwise.

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This page is taken from the Encyclopedia of Graphics File Formats and is licensed by O'Reilly under the Creative Common/Attribution license.