my rant on Open File Formats is going to be published in Spanish!

I was contacted today by some folks in Spain that are publishing a book about Media Art Conservation. They found something I posted to the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity last year and want my permission to translate and publish it. I'm really excited.

more info on the IDC can be found at their website or on the archive of the mailing list at

It took me a while to dig up the post from my archive so I could decide if I wanted to give permission, I'm posting it here for no particular reason other than procrastinating other things I should be doing.

Subject: re: [iDC] shelf life

As someone who is a technologist and rather explicitly not an academic, I tend to lurk on this list and don't contribute often, however a lot of this conversation has missed something that I feel is very important so I've forced myself to take some time away from deadlines and add my thoughts to the thread. This post might be a bit jumbled, but if I take the time to write another draft -- given how often I find the time to write -- it won't get out this year. I hope some might find the ideas valuable to the discussion.

As creators of digital works, if we want our work to survive over time, we need to be aware of a number of issues. Many comments have confused or combined content/storage media and file/content format into one (and most if not all have ignored licensing). It is critical that they be seen as separate factors that lead to either the digital-dumpster of history or to the potential of being archived and accessed over time.

Critical to the issue of shelf-life for digital works is the use of Free Software and Open File Formats.

Content/license: how you view your place in history defines how you try to control your work. Will you allow people to disassemble your creation and make parts of it their own? Are you the latest link in a history/long chain reaction of creativity, or are you an island in time claiming no connection to the past and with nothing to pass to the future?
Do you let your tools/software/etc make this decision for you by using proprietary tools and closed file formats or do you make an active decision on tools based on a desire to create something that can be shared? The more you try to keep control over your work, the less possible it will be to have a long shelf-life.

Storage Media: a couple of posts in this thread have made reference to a physical storage media and its potential to go extinct. CD's degrade, drives die, paper can burn... It is important to not tie your creation too tightly to the physical means of distribution if you desire a long shelf-life.

Content/file format: this is critical if you want shelf-life. if you do not create using open file formats that can be accessed and converted over time, you are locking the life of your work to the whim of a corporate board room. This is especially critical if you have created a work that requires the tools of creation in order to be displayed. If the works that Leonardo da Vinci created while looking through his telescope required such a telescope to be viewed, would any of us have ever seen them? If you want to create work that can be preserved, you must use formats that you have the right to access, even if the company that produced it decides to never upgrade it.

The tools you use: while many of you might not have the skill to modify software, using tools that you have the right to modify is critical. Someone mentioned having created a work that will never again be accessed because viewing it is locked to tools that require Mac OS 9. Based in proprietary tools and locked to a proprietary operating system, there is little hope of ever being able to change that situation.

Why have the works of Euripides had long shelf-life? Public domain tools and open formats -- encodings that can be converted to modern languages even if the original format is no longer in use.

The discussion of what it means to create art with tools you don't own or control is one I'd like to see happen more often (keep in mind that you never own proprietary software even if you pay for it).

I think that this is an important part of the shelf-life discussion. Do you use Free tools and open formats? If not, why? Is the thought of tools and formats even part of your creative process? If not, why?