why promulgating proprietary file formats is unethical

Kragen Sitaker kragen@pobox.com
Wed, 17 Jul 2002 20:05:21 -0400 (EDT)

Aladdin Systems (not to be confused with Aladdin Software, vendors of
Ghostscript) has a compressor and file format called "StuffIt" which
is very popular on the Macintosh platform.  An Aladdin Systems
employee asked me why I thought their new policy of keeping their file
format secret was unethical, and I answered as follows.

People who use StuffIt entrust their data to the StuffIt format.  If
they can't read the format, they lose their data.  Sometimes, this
data is very important to them, although that may not always be
apparent at the time.

Because the file format is not open, users have control over and
access to Stuffed data only to the extent that Aladdin sees fit to
allow at the time.  Right now, Aladdin finds it strategic to make this
control and access widely accessible, but that may not always be the

At present, this isn't a serious problem for most people; while they
need to pay a certain ransom to Aladdin Systems to retrieve their data
(I understand it's not normally a monetary ransom but merely agreement
to a proprietary-software license), they don't, practically speaking,
have a hard time retrieving their data.

Of course, if Aladdin were to make it too difficult to extract files
from StuffIt format, users would switch to other competing file
formats, so that isn't likely to happen soon.

Aladdin is presently trying to establish StuffIt as a competitor to
the .zip format for cross-platform data compression (and aggregation,
of course). If Aladdin were to succeed in this, there might eventually
be little real competition to the StuffIt format.  At this point,
Aladdin (or whoever owned them) could leverage their control over the
file format to other ends.  For example, if Microsoft bought Aladdin,
they might find it strategically unwise to provide a Linux StuffIt
extractor, or they might find it useful to require that people
installing StuffIt allow Microsoft to install, update, or disable
other software on their machine at any time over the network.

Another problem is that companies tend to fail fairly quickly; the
median company lifetime during the last century was something like 50
years.  If Aladdin were to go bankrupt, or radically change their line
of business --- which could happen even if StuffIt were still widely
used --- it's likely that new licenses to use un-Stuffing software
would no longer be available.  Data archived in StuffIt files would
eventually become inaccessible.  (How quickly would depend on the
licensing regime in effect at the time.)

Even when companies don't go bankrupt, they often forget things that
aren't profitable to remember.

Published documents can be lost, but they are likely to be lost less
frequently than internal-only documentation.

So, when people use proprietary data formats, not only do they put
themselves at the mercy of the owners of the formats --- they imperil
the work of future historians.  Reverse-engineering file formats is
hard enough when you can run the software you're reverse engineering
and observe its inputs and outputs.

I understand that you can't survive in business by considering only
your customers' interests and not your own, but promulgating a
proprietary file format puts your own interests ahead of your
customers' to an unethical extent, endangering our collective cultural
legacy and their individual interests, usually without their

I'm sure you can tell I'm not a big fan of Microsoft, either.  :)

<kragen@pobox.com>       Kragen Sitaker     <http://www.pobox.com/~kragen/>
The Internet stock bubble didn't burst on 1999-11-08.  Hurrah!
The power didn't go out on 2000-01-01 either.  :)