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Musings on free HL7 IP

Publication date: Oct 01, 2012

HL7 has freed up the IP related to its standards. How did that come about, and to what organizational changes will it (have to) lead?

The history of Free HL7 IP

The Board has been kicking around the idea of free IP for a couple years. For example, Lawrence Rosen (a well known open source attorney) was asked to report to the HL7 board about changing HL7 into an open standard in September 2005. There are many definitions of what it means to be an open standard. Both the aspects of a 'free standard' (free as in Beer), as well as the aspect of openness (anybody can create a fork/variant of an existing standard) have drawbacks which require significant consideration. At the time the concept of HL7 as an open/free standard wasn't embraced by the organization.

About 2 years ago the HL7 board started to define a set of Strategic Initiatives based on the HL7 mission; realization thereof requires a significant investment in tools and human resources, which in turn means a need to increase revenue. One way of doing this is to increase membership numbers. It was decided (in 2010) to reach out to organizations using IP to increase membership revenue.

The discussion around free/open standards was far from done however: after a couple of months of discussion the HL7 board decided (on January 17 2012) to make EHR FPs and DAMs available for free for a test period of 1 year. A subsequent decision was made (on April 2) to publish the new HL7 FHIR standard, initially developed outside of HL7 and then brought to HL7, as a free standard. This lead to a new discussion in the HL7 Advisory Council and the HL7 board. The board decision to free the HL7 IP was made on August 1.

Consequence: HL7 revenue model

It is anticipated that the membership numbers will decrease given that HL7s standards are now free (free access, free use). This requires an adjustment to HL7s revenue model. Below some of the changes that are being contemplated; some are based on hearsay/conjecture - this is by no means an official list:
  • The HL7 membership model is moving closer to W3C, where strategic influence will bring in larger revenue. For HL7 this would mean introducing new membership levels with strategic voting and ballot privileges.
  • New focus on Education and training; there is an education plan under development by HL7's new director of education. One of the aims is to increase revenue.
  • New opportunities for validation of the support by software applications of HL7's standards, e.g. in the form of test events (HL7 connectathons) and certification (of persons).
  • Membership still has the advantage that one has early access to HL7 IP (draft standards are exlusive to members, normative standard are free and freely accessible)
  • New opportunities related to HL7 services (consulting), support (e.g. 24/7 1-hour response SLA)


Freeing the HL7 IP probably would have been necessary at some point in time - the acceptance (by users and implementers) of non-free standards has declined over the past years. The current IP policy was generally considered to be non-enforceable anyhow. To qoute Chuck Jaffe, HL7 CEO, "It's the right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it".


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Ringholm bv is a group of European experts in the field of messaging standards and systems integration in healthcare IT. We provide the industry's most advanced training courses and consulting on healthcare information exchange standards.
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