Undocumented “open” formats

Recently I learned that I can’t upgrade to a current version of Finale Allegro, a music entry program, except by getting the very expensive full version or taking a step downward to PrintMusic. Since I don’t want to lose all my files when some “upgrade” makes Allegro stop working, I’ve been looking for alternatives. MuseScore has its attractions; it’s open source, powerful, and generally well regarded. But I ran across this discussion on the MuseScore forum, which has me just a bit worried. According to “Thomas,” whose user ID is 1 and so probably speaks with authority, “As the MuseScore format is still being shaped on a daily basis, we haven’t put any effort yet to create a schema.”

This doesn’t encourage me to use MuseScore. Even though it’s an “open” application, its format isn’t open in any meaningful sense. You can download the code and reverse-engineer it, of course, but it’s going to change in the next version. While I’m sure the developers will try not to break files created with earlier versions, there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed, and they’re likely to be especially careless about compatibility with files that are more than a few versions old.

You can export files to MusicXML, which is standardized, but in trying this out I came upon a disturbing bug. If I edit the file and save the changes, they’re saved not to the .xml file but to a .mcsz file, MuseScore’s native format. If there’s already an older file with that name, it gets overwritten without warning.

The dichotomy between “open” and “proprietary” formats is the wrong one. There are many formats which are trademarked by a business and their documentation copyrighted, but if the documentation is public and the format not encumbered by patents, anyone can use it. Formats which are created by open-source code but are undocumented and subject to change might are effectively closed formats.

This post grew, in part, from my thoughts on avoiding data loss due to format obsolescence, which is this topic of this week’s post on Files That Last.

One response to “Undocumented “open” formats

  1. Hey Gary,
    Your worries regarding the MuseScore file format are certainly valid. Still being a young but maturing project, MuseScore is still heavily developed on a daily basis and this means that the file format is changing. Here is how it changed over the past years and with the different releases: http://musescore.org/en/developers-handbook/version-information

    As our community has a large collection of sheet music on http://musescore.com, it is our holy duty for us to make sure that scores made with previous versions will open in future versions. And so far so good I would say, because I haven’t come across issues from users who couldn’t open their scores anymore in newer releases.

    I hope this may take away your fear to use MuseScore. It’s simply a great open source project with a great community ;)