Standards-Based Interoperability: Standards View: Open Standards vs Open Source

Confusion in the understanding and use of the terms “Open Standards” and “Open Source” resulted in the development of a White Paper prepared collaboratively by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) to describe how they relate and how they are different.[1]


Communication means “transmitting or exchanging through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior.” Standards are a pre-requisite for communication, because standardization means “agreeing on a common system.” Geospatial software vendors, developers, and users collaborate in the OGC’s voluntary consensus standards process to develop and agree on standards that enable information systems to exchange geospatial information and instructions for geoprocessing. The result of these efforts are Open Standards. The OGC defines Open Standards as standards that are:

  1. Freely and publicly available – They are available free of charge and unencumbered by patents and other intellectual property.
  2. Non-discriminatory – They are available to anyone, any organization, anytime, anywhere with no restrictions.
  3. No license fees – There are no charges at any time for their use.
  4. Vendor neutral – They are vendor neutral in terms of their content and implementation concept and do not favor any vendor over another.
  5. Data neutral – The standards are independent of any data storage model or format.
  6. Defined, documented, and approved, by a formal member driven consensus The consensus group remains in charge of changes and no single entity controls the standard.

The OGC’s Open Standards are specifications for interfaces and encodings that enable interoperability between geoprocessing systems from different developers, whether employed by proprietary product vendors, independent integrators, application developers, or active in Open Source projects.

A standard is like a blueprint that guides people who build things. A standard documents the use of rules, conditions, guidelines or characteristics for products or related processes and production methods. Standards can arise from a single company whose successful products become “de facto” standards. Standards may also be set by agreement among two or more software producers, by government edict, a government-run process, or by representatives from multiple governments. OMB Circular A-119 directs Federal agencies to use voluntary consensus standards in lieu of government-unique standards except where inconsistent with law or otherwise impractical. Alternatively, standards can be developed, as in ISO or the OGC, through a voluntary consensus process governed by well-defined policies and procedures. These standards are agreed upon by the participants in the consensus process.

The OGC’s Open Standards are free, publicly available specifications for interfaces, encodings and best practices. They are not software.


Open Source encompasses two related concepts regarding the way software is developed and licensed. They are codified in the “Free Software” and the “Open Source” definitions. “Free and Open Source Software” refers to software which has been made available under a free software license with the rights to run the program for any purpose, to study how the program works, to adapt it, and to redistribute copies, including modifications. These freedoms enable Open Source software development, a public, collaborative model that promotes early publishing and frequent releases. The Open Source Initiative[2] has developed a set of 10 requirements of any software license that is to be considered an Open Source license.

Open source does not just mean access to the source code. The distribution terms of open-source software must comply with the following criteria from the Open Source Definition ( ):

  1. Free Redistribution – The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.
  2. Source Code – The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled Where some form of a product is not distributed with source code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without charge. The source code must be the preferred form in which a programmer would modify the program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed. Intermediate forms such as the output of a preprocessor or translator are not allowed.
  3. Derived Works – The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.
  4. Integrity of the Author’s Source Code – The license may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form only if the license allows the distribution of “patch files” with the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build time. The license must explicitly permit distribution of software built from modified source The license may require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original software.
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups – The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor – The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.
  7. Distribution of License – The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product – The rights attached to the program must not depend on the program’s being part of a particular software If the program is extracted from that distribution and used or distributed within the terms of the program’s license, all parties to whom the program is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in conjunction with the original software distribution.
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software – The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed For example, the license must not insist that all other programs distributed on the same medium must be open-source software.
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral – No provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface.

It is sometimes helpful to understand that Open Source is a matter of liberty, not price. To this end, the Free Software Foundation[3] says that you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” It means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms (

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  3. Access to the source code (Open Source) is a precondition for this.
  4. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  5. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

These freedoms are the prerequisites to Open Source software development.

The Federal Shared Service Implementation Guide[4] suggests, “When adopting a new shared service, determine whether a proprietary-based or open standards-based solution should be purchased. While it may be difficult in some situations to obtain an open standards-based solution, Customer/Partner Agencies should be aware that open standards increase their agility in moving to other providers. Open standard and constructs such as XML, or open source software, provide levels of agility that help agencies make shared services implementations more agile.”


[1] Much of the information in this section is taken directly from the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) Wiki. The content of this section is taken from an article that is a white paper (Open Source and Open Standards, May 5, 2011) jointly published by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and OSGeo. The article is available at



[4] CIO Council Federal Shared Services Implementation Guide, April 16, 2013. Available at

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