The Internet went all abuzz last week when a report by Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer posited that Microsoft was keeping open its legal options against licensees of OpenOffice.org. The software is a freely downloadable open-source productivity suite that constitutes a significant portion of Sun's commercially offered StarOffice. It also exemplifies the threat that the open-source movement poses to Microsoft.
Bishop reached his conclusion after an examination of a document called the Limited Patent Covenant and Stand-Still Agreement that was recently filed by Sun with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The document included previously undisclosed text from the legal agreements that codify Microsoft and Sun's recently forged partnership -- text that results in significant legal protection for customers of StarOffice, but that explicitly denies that same protection to users of OpenOffice.org.
The revelation set off a wildfire of speculation and conspiracy theorising that burned through the Internet's news pages, blogs, and other public forums. For example, because open-source software lives under the threat of patent infringement licensees of it can be sued by any relevant patent holder at any time. Why, then, would Microsoft explicitly restate its right to sue OpenOffice.org licensees on the basis of patent infringement (as it did in the text of its agreement with Sun) when that right has pre-existed for Microsoft as well as others? To the extent that the larger agreement between Sun and Microsoft involved a significant amount of bargaining, why didn't Sun -- technically the steward of the OpenOffice.org open-source community -- request the same immunity for licensees of OpenOffice.org that licensees of StarOffice will get? Did Microsoft use some sort of leverage to make Sun agree not to intervene in the event it decides to sue OpenOffice.orglicensees? Did Sun capitulate, or are there undisclosed portions of the Microsoft-Sun pact still tucked beneath the pillows of Bill Gates and Scott McNealy?
Perhaps the quid pro quo is straightforward -- a mutually beneficial plot to force users to one of two legally safe, for-profit alternatives to OpenOffice.org: Microsoft's Office or Sun's commercially licensed StarOffice?