It is all Chinese to me

Yesterday I received a press release form the VSI Alliance (VSIA). In itself this is not a strange occurrence, although it is an infrequent one. What struck me as peculiar was its subject matter. The title of the release “China Semiconductor Industry Association signs agreement to base standards on VSI Alliance standards” caught my attention because of its hidden ambiguity. To the casual reader the news would seem a positive step that facilitates commerce and improves IP quality worldwide. But to those who have been involved in standards development the fact that one organization has decided to base its standards on those developed by another organization has little strength and determinism. From a practical point of view the Chinese obviously would prefer to start from existing documents to develop their standards, since any standard requires a significant amount of preliminary work in research and feasibility studies. In choosing the VSIA documents they have singled out the organization that has the longest history in dealing with issues related to IP development and quality assurance with the goal of improving IP-reuse. This seems a wise choice.

Probably the most important negative point is the fact that the VSIA standards are not public domain. Free access to the documents is reserved to VSIA members, while others must pay a fee in order to obtain them. To get around this rule a selected group of 35 Chinese companies will be allowed free access to the VSIA documents through a newly organized entity called the China VSI Alliance Special Interest Group (CSIG). I find it hard to visualize how any Chinese company not a member of the CSIG can contribute to the development of the Chinese version of a VSIA standard, since it will not have access to the fundamental documents guiding the work. Therefore under this model the 35 companies will own the IP standards in China.

The second problem with this arrangement is that it contributes to the proliferation, not the unification, of standards. In fact both the title of the press release and the wording within its body make it amply clear that the intent is to base the Chinese standards on the VSIA standards, not to adopt the VSIA standards in China. Therefore the Chinese standards will be derivative works with varying degrees of conformance to the original VSIA documents. Neither organization has stated that the harmonization of differing standards is a goal.

The agreement restricts the CSIG to develop standards derived from the VSIA ones only in the Chinese language, therefore only for national consumption. I wonder what will happen when IP blocks made in China, conforming to Chinese standards, become available worldwide and we find that they do not quite conform to the VSIA standards. This problem will be complicated by the fact that most of us cannot even read those standards! I guess this leaves out purchasing IP from Walmart!