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May/June 2010

James A. Thomas, President, ASTM InternationalA Business Model that Works

Keeping the ASTM Standards Development Process Open

Standards should be free. That’s what some claim. Others say that standards developed for the common good should be free, such as those used in technical regulations. What they mean, of course, is that standards documents should be free.

Let’s consider for a minute what that would involve. How would an organization produce a free standards document? How would it support a headquarters and a staff to manage the standards development process? How would it obtain the wherewithal to maintain existing standards, secure electronic equipment and Internet service providers, maintain Web sites, provide editing services, publish standards, distribute them and then give away the resulting documents? In other words, how do you operate a business and give away the product?

It can be done. In these instances, an organization would have to rely on member support (provided it is not a government or quasi-government entity that relies on tax revenue). Substantial membership fees, project fees, registration fees at meetings and other member-provided income would then become the revenue base for operations, and standards documents would be free. It’s a business model. It’s a choice.

ASTM International has chosen a different model. Here’s why: One of the fundamental tenets to which ASTM holds is that there will be no barriers — national or financial — to participation in the ASTM standards development process, and so we make membership fees nominal, give away a book of standards that offsets the fee, and we sell our documents to some 250,000 customers worldwide.

This model has its benefits. The most obvious one is that it has attracted more than 30,000 members from 135 countries. These are impressive numbers, but there are people behind these numbers, many of whom would be disenfranchised by steep fees. Developing standards would be beyond their reach, and we would be reduced not only in size, in talent and in technical resources, but most importantly, in spirit. There are profound, powerful forces at work when there are no barriers to opportunity, when a vast array of ideas and open landscapes of experience are allowed full expression. This full vessel is what ASTM International standards are made of. This is the point; it is the principle upon which we stand: There shall be no barriers to the development of ASTM standards.

The World Trade Organization has linked this kind of openness to standards that facilitate trade. Obviously, the more diverse and open the technical committee, the less likely it is to produce a technical barrier to trade, i.e., a standard that can be used for the purpose of disadvantaging competitors. What open membership also means to ASTM International is that people who develop standards are more likely to use them and more likely to be able to use them. ASTM standards are also used by regulators and others around the world1 because they are effective and relevant,2 and they are effective and relevant because they have been developed by a process that embraces openness, transparency and consensus — all WTO/TBT3 committee principles for the development of international standards.4

All the dots connect, and in the world scheme, ASTM International is positioned properly. It’s a good place to be. But more important than that, keeping to our principle, opening our doors and keeping them open, has been the right thing to do.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

1. Approximately 5,165 ASTM standards have been adopted in 75 nations outside the United States.
2. Two aspects required of international standards by the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee’s principles and guidelines for the development of international standards.
3. World Trade Organization/Technical Barriers to Trade
4. Since 2001, ASTM International has also provided aid to developing countries, another principle of TBT guidelines, through its Memorandum of Understanding Program.

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