ISO wants to charge vendors for use of country, language and currency codes
Wilbert Kraan, CETIS staff
September 22, 2003

In a recent 'clarification' of its policy, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) has decided to start charging commercial vendors for the use of the ubiquitous country, language and currency code standards that it publishes. These standards are directly normative for half of all IMS specifications and the IEEE LOM, and indirectly normative, via the W3C's XML, for all of them.

The standards concerned are basically a series of documents that list codes that are used to represent countries, languages and currencies. A simple example is the "en" in the code of this webpage that indicates the language used here. Since the ISO codes are unchallenged as international standards for representing such things, they are among the most widely used standards in information technology. Pretty much any IT system that needs to deal with multiple languages, countries or currencies has them.

Traditionally, ISO charged for the actual standards documents, but did not put a restriction on the implementation of its standards. If you wanted to be sure, you just payed for the document, or chanced it by getting the standard from an unofficial representation of the same thing.

Because of their ubiquity, the country, language and currency codes used to be even less restricted, and were available for free consultation on the web to anyone.

In May, however, the ISO Commercial Policies Steering Group met and decided that the maintenance of the databases that hold the codes was getting pricey, and that ways of charging needed to be found.

According to ISO's "Summary Regarding the Use of ISO Codes" (144 Kb, pdf), the new deal, or 'clarification', is that:

This is a tricky one: it means that you can use the codes for your own purposes, as long as you don't sell anything that includes them. So this website's "en" is legal- it's only used for ourselves and our visitors, not for any commercial clients that have bought functionality that depends on the "en". The same would go for an entirely commercial website: as long as the codes are used for the internal business process, it's fine.
So, for commercial products like most commonly used VLEs, it's certain that the ISO would like the vendors to cough up. The only 'unless' that has already been established by Oracle is if the vendor gets their clients to download the codes themselves.

From the wording, open source software is going to be more or less affected. 'More' since quite a few open source packages are resold, 'less' since the freely downloadable versions of such packages are not.

Regardless of the licencing nature of software, the main danger with this charging policy is that it hinders the spread of a universally necessary set of standards. At the moment, any kind of interoperability between systems that are multinational or multilingual can count on the presence of the ISO codes. Once the charging is enforced, that is not so certain- some vendors may choose not to implement it, or go for a rival set of codes. Result: one unholy mess of broken communication.

For this reason, standards bodies whose work relies on the ISO codes have all protested vociferously against the measure: the Unicode Technical Committee and the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards have sent open letters. The W3C also calls for people to contact their local ISO representatives to persuade them to vote against the measure.