Take the 2-minute tour ×
Programmers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development. It's 100% free, no registration required.

How come open software like OpenOffice.org and supports proprietary formats like Microsoft DOC and MP3? AFAIK, the DOC format is not open and implementing the feature in OO.org required serious amounts of reverse engineering. So why isn't Microsoft (or any such proprietary players) making an issue out of this? In the same light, how come the GStreamer plugins are able to play proprietary formats?

share|improve this question
"So why isn't Microsoft (or any such proprietary players) making an issue out of this?" What issue? What possible complaint could Microsoft have? Patent violation? Trademark violation? Copyright violation? I don't get what "issue" you're concerned about. Can you clarify what "issue" you're talking about? –  S.Lott Jul 19 '11 at 11:43
@S.Lott firstly reverse engineering their technology. Secondly offering an alternative to use it without buying their software. –  Bernhard Heijstek Jul 19 '11 at 11:45
How is reverse engineering an "issue"? Please clarify this. Assume that the people who did the reverse engineering all purchased their licenses. (I know that when I've done reverse engineering, we were careful to pay fully for every license we used.) What possible "issue" is there? Please clarify how "reverse engineering" is an "issue". –  S.Lott Jul 19 '11 at 11:47
@S.Lott: in some countries, like let's say USA, RE is not legal. –  vartec Jul 19 '11 at 11:52
@vartec: Reverse engineering a file format and reverse engineering software are different things. Reverse engineering software is usually prohibited by the contract. Reverse engineering a file format is a simple matter of comparing a lot of files and hypothesizing what the bits mean. It's entirely different and cannot be prohibited -- you'd be prohibiting science. What's the "issue"? –  S.Lott Jul 19 '11 at 12:29
show 3 more comments

2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

the DOC format is not open

"Not open", here, actually means that it's controlled by Microsoft (who can change it at will) as opposed to decided upon by a committee (such as w3c for html). The format's specs is available for everyone to peek at -- if not by Microsoft, then by people who reverse engineered it.

So why isn't Microsoft (or any such proprietary players) making an issue out of this?

Why should they? They control the de facto standard of word processing documents. Allowing others to read their proprietary formats ensures things stay that way. This leads to more MS-Word sales. It additionally gives them a free hand to change the format whenever it fits them in order to introduce new features. Competition, by contrast, needs to rely on their own formats to add features, rendering their documents unusable except by other users of the same software.

share|improve this answer
If 'open' means controlled by MS ...? And 'not open' then means what? :) –  user unknown Jul 19 '11 at 12:35
This feels like part of the whole "Fire and Motion" concept: joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000339.html. Microsoft can change the format at will, and force the competition to spend painstaking hours re-reverse engineering the format and updating their software to make it compatible. If they're busy doing that, they're likely not writing new/better features. –  Ben Jul 19 '11 at 13:39
@user: I've edited my answer's first words to make what I meant clearer. –  Denis Jul 19 '11 at 15:42
Fine. I've already upvoted it. –  user unknown Jul 19 '11 at 19:31
add comment

First of all, proprietary does not mean closed. Microsoft has published it's binary formats (although MS Office was never 100% compatible with their own format). Current iterations of MS Office use .docx, which is Office Open XML, standardized by Ecma (as ECMA-376) and by ISO and IEC (as ISO/IEC 29500). Office Open XML is an open standard.

MP3 is just a abbreviation for MPEG Layer III. MPEG is also standardized, parts referring to MP3 areISO/IEC 11172-3 and ISO/IEC 13818-3.

share|improve this answer
MPEG is a published standard, but patent-encumbered. Not all countries recognise software patents. –  TRiG Aug 3 '11 at 11:01
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.