[Air-L] PDF is proprietary?

Giacomo Poderi giacomo.poderi at unitn.it
Tue Jan 15 09:28:25 PST 2013

Dear all,

On 01/15/2013 04:04 PM, Jason G. Karlin wrote:
> In what way is PDF proprietary? It was officially released as an open standard on July 1, 2008.

with no presumption to be exhaustive, to criticize #pdftribute initiative or to
talk on Swartz's behalf, the 'PDF issue' is subtler and more complex than it seems.

Yes, PDF v 1.7 specifications (along with prior versions) were released by Adobe
and approved by ISO as a standard in 2008 [1].
However, ISO formally certifies "standards" only, not "Open standards".
Indeed, as of today, no widely and legally-recognized definition of an open
standard exists [2].

Usually (and simply speaking) an open standard is a standard whose
specifications can be implemented royalty-free. This requires that there are
either no patents covering the specifications or that such patents are granted
on a royalty-free basis.
PDF specifications are covered by several patents. Most of these (not all) are
held by Adobe.

PDF v1.7 is considered an open standard because, contextually to ISO
standardization process, Adobe released a royalty-free license covering all the
patents it held on PDF v1.7 specifications [3].

Since 2008 Adobe continued developing its own specifications for PDF
later versions, but only a few of these PDF 'updates' were either submitted to
ISO or accepted by ISO as standards.
This resulted in two different sets of PDF specifications which are out-of-sync
with each other (i.e. ISO PDF specs. and Adobe PDF specs.)

Furthermore, Adobe never renewed/extended (at least not until recently, not sure
if things have changed) the royalty-free license for its patents to cover
also the newer PDF specifications.

Therefore, yes *PDF v1.7* can be considered an open standard, but strictly
speaking later versions are either "not open" (ISO ones) or "not standards"
(Adobe ones).

Basically, this is why only Adobe can afford (efficiently) implementing a PDF
reader which provides all shiny & advanced features such as editing,
highlighting, revision comparison etc etc (and why you have to pay for its Pro

These may appear nitpickings to most of us, but I suspect (my guesswork here)
they were not marginal to an activist hacker.

Sorry for the lengthy-techy and slight off-topic reply, just provided some

Best regards,

[1] http://pdfreaders.org/os.en.html  (Self-disclosure, yes I was loosely
involved with this initiative, that is why I'm acquainted with the issue and why
I referenced this resource website)
[2] http://fsfe.org/activities/os/def.html
[3] Since this royalty-free license only applies to Adobe's patents on PDF, then
technically there is `the Sword of Damocles' pending on PDF v1.7: if the other
patents' owners decide to enforce their patents on PDF v1.7, this would become
just 'another standard', no longer an open one.

PhD Candidate
Doctoral School in Sociology and Social Research - Information Systems and
University of Trento, Italy

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