A proprietary format
is a file format
of a company, organization, or individual that contains data that is ordered and stored according to a particular encoding-scheme, designed by the company or organization to be secret
, such that the decoding and interpretation of this stored data is only easily accomplished
with particular software or hardware
that the company itself has developed. The specification
of the data encoding format is not released, or underlies non-disclosure agreements. A proprietary format can also be a file format whose encoding is in fact published, but is restricted through licences such that only the company itself or licencees may use it. In contrast, an open format is a file format that is published and free to be used by everybody.
Proprietary formats are typically controlled by a company or organization for its own benefits, and the restriction
of its use by others is ensured through patents or as trade secrets. It is thus intended to give the license holder exclusive control of the technology to the (current or future) exclusion
of others. Typically such restrictions attempt to prevent reverse engineering
, though reverse engineering of file formats for the purposes of interoperability is generally believed to be legal by those who practice it. Legal positions differ according to each country's laws related to, among other things, software patents.
Because control over a format may be exerted in varying ways and in varying degrees
, and documentation of a format may deviate in many different ways from the ideal, there is not necessarily a clear black/white distinction between open and proprietary formats. Nor is there any universally recognized "bright line" separating the two. The lists of prominent formats below illustrate this point, distinguishing
"open" (i.e. publicly documented) proprietary formats from "closed
" (undocumented) proprietary formats and including a number of cases which are classed by some observers as open and by others as proprietary.