Microsoft accused of staking claim to the Internet

The software giant has been accused of claiming IP rights over many of the Internet's basic protocols, but Microsoft claims it's a case of 'honest confusion'

Merit Network, a not-for-profit network research organisation, says that Microsoft appears to be staking its claim to various Internet protocols, which may thwart future innovation in the technology -- but Microsoft claims that this is merely a misunderstanding, which it is trying to resolve.

Larry Blunk, a developer and researcher for Merit Network, wrote an email on 30 October outlining his concerns to the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and the Intellectual Property working group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the body which is responsible for the maintenance and evolution of the Internet.

In the email he states that Microsoft's Royalty Free Protocol License Agreement is offering for licence 130 Internet protocols, many of which are RFC documents -- notes that are submitted to the IETF by various individuals, and may become Internet standards. Microsoft's agreement covers core protocols such as TCP/IP, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Simple Network Management Protocol v2 (SNMP), Domain Name System and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol v3 (LDAP).

In the agreement, Microsoft states it is offering these protocols for licence "under any applicable intellectual property rights that Microsoft may have" and that the licence enables the individual to "implement the protocol".

Blunk said he is concerned that this document may have an anti-competitive effect for protocols that have been implemented many different times.

"It is my concern that by merely suggesting they may hold applicable rights to these protocols, Microsoft is injecting a significant amount of unwarranted uncertainty and doubt regarding non-Microsoft implementations of these protocols," said Blunk. "It is quite likely that an individual or organization would be intimidated into signing the licence agreement simply due to Microsoft's vast financial and legal resources."

He also highlighted concerns about the conditions that are outlined by the licence agreement which restrict how software can be marketed by those who implement a server.

"Of additional concern is the onerous and restrictive conditions attached to the licence agreement," said Blunk. "The "Server Software" requirement and definition, including such amorphous concepts as how software is "marketed", would likely exclude many open-source and embedded software implementations."

The licence agreement's restriction on compliance of technical could thwart future innovation in Internet technology, said Blunk.

"The Technical Documentation compliance requirement would, in a number of cases, cause implementations to interoperate poorly, or not at all, due to flaws and errors in the RFC documents," said Blunk. "Further, it would prohibit researchers from making enhancements and improvements to the protocols."

Blunk said that through Microsoft's apparent claims to rights over the Internet protocols it has not respected the rights of the original authors of the RFC documents, and implies that these authors may have breached Microsoft's copyright.

"In my opinion, it also shows a lack of respect for the authors' rights and the terms on which they submitted these documents to the IETF," said Blunk. "Further, it unfairly implies the authors may have illegally [sic] incorporated Microsoft copyrighted material without giving the authors a chance to refute such implications."

A Microsoft spokeswoman said on Tuesday that Microsoft is currently looking into this issue.

"We’ve read and reviewed Mr. Blunk’s letter and are actively discussing the letter with both the IAB and Mr. Blunk to appropriately address the issues he’s raised," said the spokeswoman. "While we believe that this is a case of honest confusion we want to make sure that our responses and overall commitment to furthering standards development are clear."

The spokeswoman said the company provides the Royalty Free Protocol License Agreement in order to satisfy its obligation with standard-setting organisations.

"In conjunction with the MSDN protocol licence, Microsoft continues to hold to its policy of extending a royalty-free licence with terms that satisfy any obligation Microsoft has as a result of the company’s participation in a standards setting organization – like the IETF," said the spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman did not respond to a request for more information on how the list of Internet protocols was derived, and was unable to provide proof on its rights to these protocols.

 

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