Microsoft to forge relationship with Open Source Initiative?

Summary:eWeek has a report  that quotes Open Source Initiative acting president Michael Tiemann as saying "Microsoft reached out to me as president of the OSI and they basically said they wanted to begin a productive conversation, and we agreed to take that at face value."  Later the report quotes Tiemann speculating on thepurpose of the invitation.

eWeek has a report  that quotes Open Source Initiative acting president Michael Tiemann as saying "Microsoft reached out to me as president of the OSI and they basically said they wanted to begin a productive conversation, and we agreed to take that at face value."  Later the report quotes Tiemann speculating on thepurpose of the invitation. Tiemann characterized Microsoft's Shared Source program as an "attempt to quell an internal civil war" at Microsoft and said that "there are smart people at Microsoft who realize there is another side to the argument." Tiemann, who is serving as the OSI's temporary president until a permanent replacement for Eric Raymond is found (my vote has always gone to Spikesource CEO Kim Polese),  is also vice president of open source affairs at Red Hat (here's my interview of Tiemann).  Recently,  news of a meeting in a New York City restaurant between Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did a good job of stirring up the industry's M&A rumor mill (guilty). 

Whether or not anything more will become of Microsoft's overtures to the OSI remains to be seen.  Unlike the Open Source Development Labs, vendors cannot yet join the OSI in any membership capacity.  That said, according to Tiemann and other OSI board members, the organization has been contemplating some sort of membership structure that allows the OSI to best serve the various open source constituencies (vendors, business users, developers, etc.).  Although some of the OSI's board members (Tiemann included) are also employees with certain vendors,  those employees claim that their involvement in the OSI has nothing to do with their day jobs.

Today, the OSI's relationship with various vendors  is primarily related  to vendor-specific open source licenses.  If a company like Sun wants to create a new open source license such as it did with the CDDL, it must go to the OSI to have the newly drafted license blessed as a true open source license.  Otherwise, the open source community will reject it.  Under the guise of its Shared Source program, Microsoft has released different bodies of code under various shades of open source license gray -- everything from an OSI-approved license to something far more restrictive, but not exactly proprietary.  Jason Matusow, Microsoft chief open source strategist, described this strategy in detail to me earlier this year.  But among those shades of gray, no code has been released under a Microsoft drafted license that also bears the imprimatur of the OSI.  Not only that, if Microsoft is interested in drafting its own open source license (as others have done) and is looking to consult with the OSI over how to best do that, the timing could not be worse.  One of the reorganized OSI's primary initiatives is to address the problem of open source license proliferation.  In other words, the goal is to trim back the number of licenses, not take on new ones. 

One reason for proliferation of licenses so far has to do with vendors that have wanted to participate in the open source community.  They want to join, but not in a way that allows their own intellectual property (or that which they are guardians of) to leak into competitors products.  Sun's CDDL, for example, is every bit an open source license.  But it prevents Sun-guarded code from finding its way into Linux where companies like IBM can turn it against Sun.  If Microsoft is seeking similar protection under the guise of its own open source license (and is seeking counsel from the OSI as to the next steps), the OSI will either have to allow another license onto its approved list (a capitulation no matter how you look at it), or tell Microsoft to work with one of the existing licenses. 

Today, Microsoft has truly open sourced some code, but all of it is published under the IBM-drafted Common Public License (the CPL).   Not only might the CPL not offer Microsoft the sort of legal comfort it wants before it will open source more code, but it's one of the licenses that the OSI would probably prefer to get rid of as a part of its new non-proliferation initiatives.  Because of the very broad reciprocation language it contains, the CPL's language essentially exposes licensees to patent theft.  The IBM boot-strapped Eclipse project was originally licensed under the CPL until that organization established more independence from IBM and changed its license to the Eclipse Public License, a derivation of the CPL that offered much better protection to licensees.  If I had to make some wild guesses -- and these are truly wild --  Microsoft wants to publish more code as open source and is probably interested in having its own license, just like Sun got.  But the OSI is not in a proliferating mood these days and it's going to take some schmoozing to figure out how the two can meet in the middle (coincidentally, the basic theme of my interview with Microsoft's Matusow).

Topics: Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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