What Does Proprietary Mean, Anyway?

Googling “proprietary” results in lots of hits, but very few of them use the word in a positive sense. The Webopedia Computer Dictionary offers:


Privately owned and controlled. In the computer industry, proprietary is the opposite of open. A proprietary design or technique is one that is owned by a company. It also implies that the company has not divulged specifications that would allow other companies to duplicate the product.

Increasingly, proprietary architectures are seen as a disadvantage. Consumers prefer open and standardized architectures, which allow them to mix and match products from different manufacturers.

Notice the tone at the end? Forgive me for contradicting authorities (well, the Webopedia anyway), but I believe that last paragraph needs some exploration.

Like so many words we use, I do not think it means what we think it means (apologies to Inigo Montoya). Dictionary.com emphasises the “property rights” sense of the word without the heavy innuendo of the Webopedia definition. Still, we can all recognize what Webopedia is getting at, sort of.

A few of those many Google hits are for pages complaining about Microsoft Word’s “proprietary” data format and others (here and here), and there’s a real point there, but it’s not the point made by Webopedia. See, the thing is, since “proprietary” is no longer used in anything but criticism, it’s lost much of it’s meaning.

One of the first uses of the word might have been in the battle between VHS and Beta. Critics labeled Beta the “proprietary” format and held up VHS as the “open” standard alternative. But the facts vary somewhat. Beta, developed by Sony, was first to market with a better product. VHS was developed by JVC but lacked Beta’s image quality and first-mover advantage. What JVC did was brilliant, they licensed VHS to other manufacturers at rock-bottom prices when Sony was demanding top dollar for Beta. VHS won that battle, but it is no more an open standard than Beta.

If yesterday’s battle was video tapes, today’s is commercial music formats. I find myself scratching my head when I here people complain that the iPod is “proprietary” because it will only play music from Apple’s iTunes music store. Once again, it’s a meaningless criticism, and just plain wrong. iPods can, of course, play any MP3, AIFF, or AAC you load on it, not just those downloaded from iTunes. What those critics really mean is that you can’t use the iPod with competing music stores.

Of the many competing digital rights management (DRM) formats for audio, two stand out: Apple calls theirs FairPlay, Microsoft builds theirs into Windows Media (including WMA). They and the others are all proprietary and incompatible. The problem isn’t that one is “proprietary” while the others are “open” In the end, they are all designed to limit what you can do with and how you can use the music and audio programs you purchase at these many online stores.

So what do these iPod critics use as portable music players? They appear to prefer products from Windows Media licensees. Microsoft, like JVC with VHS, finds itself behind the curve and has to struggle to push their product. The difference, and why we should all be concerned, is that we’ve seen what Microsoft does with monopoly power. Microsoft kept prices low and offered incredible deals to schools and universities when Microsoft Office was second or third to WordPerfect in a crowded market for word processors and office suites. Years later, after killing most of the competition they raised prices and changed licensing terms to cash in on their dominance (give credit where credit is due: it was a good business move that paid off).

Does anybody really think Windows Media will be any different?

Update: Former RIAA chief Hilary Rosen weighed in on the ‘proprietary’ debate recently.