My public and open University

As the readers of this blog may know, I recently became a Doctor in the University of the Basque Country.

As a follow-up to the Thesis Defense act, there is still some paperwork to be done, as e.g. filling a datasheet called "Teseo". Anyway, what I will comment applies to all the paperwork I did before, during and after the Thesis Defense.

The matter is that this freaking "Teseo" sheet is available online as a RTF or PDF. An original handwritten copy must be sent to the University, so I used a printed down PDF for that. No problem.

The problem came when the University requested that an "electronic" form be sent by e-mail (for which a scanned copy of my manuscript would not do). These bright minds surely wanted me to fill in the RTF, and send it. However, not everyone who wants to get a Ph.D. has adhered (or wants to adhere) to any expensive and abusive license for a proprietary product like MS Windows or MS Office. Certainly I haven't, so I had to make do with GNU/Linux and OpenOffice to fill the RTF. The result was crappy, due to incompatibilities of the friggin' RTF proprietary format... but that I sent.

Now the point is: does the public University of the Basque Country (or the public Spanish Ministry of Education) have any reason to discriminate in favor of the private and foreign company Microsoft? Do we, the tax-payers who put the money for their salaries, have to put up with being forced to use specific proprietary formats to communicate with the public institutions? It disgusts me to no end.

Picture the following example: I want to attend the University, and they tell me that I have to wear shoes for that (e.g., use a computer). OK, this might be more or less arbitrary, but I can accept it. Now, imagine that they ask me to wear Gucci shoes (e.g., a proprietary file format, such as RTF). That would be inacceptable, because a public institution can not favor that way a private company, at least not if there is any conceivable substitute (e.g. acceptable shoes of any other brand). And it doesn't matter if instead of Gucci they require that one uses any cheaper shoe brand. The problem is not if it is expensive, but rather that they are discriminating against other options. And they have no right to do it. They are there to serve us, not the other way around.

Someone could say that they have to use some electronic format, and any would be equally arbitrary. No, not at all. There is something called "open standards", to which "things" (e.g. electronic document formats) can adhere. One such standard is the ISO, and one document format adhering to a standard (the ISO/IEC 26300) is the Open Document Format (ODF), so they can use that.

The basics are simple: readers and editors for open formats can be made by anyone freely. No-one can force me to pay them royalties so that they allow me to make a program that reads these documents. With proprietary formats (such as DOC, RTF and others), the owner of the license (e.g. Microsoft) can ban anyone from making a program that writes documents in that format, or charge royalties as they please. Put bluntly: since the exchange of documents in my University depends on proprietary formats (RTF and DOC), Microsoft could decide tomorrow to disrupt its operations by denegating further licenses for e.g. MS Office. Of course, this will not happen, because the University will pay as requested. I call this extorsion, because the University can not afford not to pay, so where do the "free competition" and "open market" ideas fit in here? Moreover, I call the University bunch of fools, because they put themselves in a position that can be extorted. The aforementioned is not possible if one uses open formats, because free (not free of cost, but free as in freedom) document editors are, and will always be, available.

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