Vista Mythbusters #8: That license isn't so bad, after all

Summary:According to some critics, the Windows Vista license is loaded with draconian restrictions. Some of the critics are making stuff up, literally, and others are selectively quoting from the actual license agreement.

Myth: The new end user license agreement (EULA) for Windows Vista is loaded with draconian restrictions, and you're not even allowed to troubleshoot bugs!

Reality: For the most part, the Vista license agreement is clearer than its predecessors, and many of the so-called restrictions in it are based on misunderstandings.

Lest anyone accuse me of raising a straw man argument, let me name some names and quote some quotes here.

Start with Cory Doctorow of the hugely popular Boing Boing, who seems like a really smart guy but who lapses into a Hulk-like rage when the name Microsoft comes up. Doctorow's November 3 post, Vista license improves, but still broken, contains this completely over-the-top statement:

When you unwrap your copy of Vista, you "agree" not to publish damning information about the OS -- benchmarks, security vulnerabilities -- except under terms dictated by Microsoft (and those terms can change at any time). ... This is a piece of software that comes with a gag order.

Uh, no, you don't, and no, it doesn't. First of all, the restriction refers to the .NET Framework components, not to Windows itself. The exact terms under dispute are in section 9 of the Windows Vista retail license agreement, which reads as follows:

MICROSOFT .NET BENCHMARK TESTING. The software includes one or more components of the .NET Framework 3.0 (“.NET Components”). You may conduct internal benchmark testing of those components. You may disclose the results of any benchmark test of those components, provided that you comply with the conditions set forth at http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkID=66406.

And if you follow the link, you see that the conditions specify that you agree to publish enough results about your configuration so that the test results can be replicated and that you are to ensure that the application is tuned for best performance. Hardly unreasonable restrictions.

(This isn't the first time that Doctorow has picked up a rumor about Microsoft and published it as fact. A bogus July 2005 story about Microsoft and Claria remains uncorrected to this day.)

Anyway, Doctorow's statement that this license agreement prevents researchers from publishing details about security vulnerabilities in Windows Vista is laughably wrong. This clause is about performance (benchmark) testing of applications that use the .NET components. And, ironically, this restriction isn't new. The original license agreement for the .NET Framework (introduced in 2002) carries this restriction, which every Windows user agreed to when they installed an application that used these components. The difference is that in Windows Vista the .NET components are included with the operating system rather than as an add-on.

Next up is the normally perceptive Wendy Seltzer, who is actually a lawyer and who on October 19 published a widely circulated piece called "Forbidding Vistas: Windows licensing disserves the user," which included this paragraph:

Problem-solving prohibited. "You may not work around any technical limitations in the software." Microsoft might be referring to anticircumvention of technical protection measures here, but since it's often hard to tell the difference, from the user's perspective, between a TPM and a bug, this reads as a prohibition on user debugging and problem-solving. After all, down-rezzing HD content or refusing to allow users to copy quotes from an e-book don't strike most people as wanted features. Can you work around a document's failure to save properly?

Prof. Seltzer's quote from the license agreement is accurate but incomplete. Crucially, she left out the sentences just before this clause:

[Y]ou may use the software only as expressly permitted in this agreement. In doing so, you must comply with any technical limitations in the software that only allow you to use it in certain ways. For more information, see
http://www.microsoft.com/licensing/userights.

Now, I'm not a lawyer, so I will defer to Prof. Seltzer on legal interpretations. However, I am a Windows expert, and if this agreement were ever to end up in a courtroom, the lawyers would no doubt retain Windows experts (like me) to give testimony on what this particular clause means. My research would start at Microsoft's "Technical Limitations for Microsoft Products" webpage, which is indirectly linked from the license agreement. Even a quick reading of that page makes it pretty clear that this clause is about making sure that you don't hack a copy of one product so that it does what a more expensive product does. For instance, you can't hack Small Business Server to work around its limit of two physical CPUs and a maximum of 75 connections. If you want those capabilities, you have to pay up for Windows Server Standard Edition.

Read in this vein, it's clear that Vista's "technical limitations" include Home Basic's inability to use two physical CPUs, Home Premium's limit on three connections to Media Center extenders, and the maximum of 10 network connections for Ultimate edition. Trying to interpret this clause to prohibit problem-solving and troubleshooting stretches credibility to the point of paranoia.

There are other variations on this theme, but most come down to a fundamental fear that Microsoft's lawyers have loaded up the license agreement with little traps just waiting to be sprung on unsuspecting Windows users. That's silly. In fact, the one serious change that was in the original Vista license has already been changed, in direct response to howls of protest from would-be Vista users.

The real problem with Microsoft licensing is not the license agreement itself, which is notably easier to read in its Vista incarnation than in preceding versions. No, the source of most licensing woes is the sheer confusion of the entire licensing model, which puts incredible burdens on end users and business customers to discern esoteric differences between license types and to keep meticulous records. But that's a topic for another post.

For the introduction to this series, see Vista Mythbusters #1. For all posts in this series, see this page.

Topics: Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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