Reading the fine print on Microsoft's new open-source promises

Reading the fine print on Microsoft's new open-source promises

Summary: Microsoft's much-balleyhooed promise, unveiled February 21, not to sue open source developers solely applies to developers who are using Microsoft's patented protocols and interfaces in non-commercial ways. In other words, Microsoft isn't throwing in the towel in its quest to get Red Hat and other Linux vendors to sign patent-protection agreements.

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So how sweeping are the new interoperability commitments that Microsoft announced on February 21, especially the promising-sounding "covenant not to sue" open-source developers?

As I've said, I consider what Microsoft announced today to be more fluff than substance. It sounds like the European Commission shares my view. During a conference call with press and analysts to explain the finer points of Microsoft's newly announced "interoperability principles," company officials reiterated that Microsoft is not changing its thinking about its right to protect its patents, trade secrets and intellectual property.

Microsoft's promise not to sue open source developers solely applies to developers who are using Microsoft's patented protocols and interfaces in non-commercial ways. In other words, Microsoft isn't throwing in the towel in its quest to get Red Hat and other Linux vendors to sign patent-protection agreements.

Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith told participants on the call that Microsoft's goal was "carving out a portion of its patent rights." Specifically, Microsoft is now allowing any developers -- commercial or open-source to see and "use" its application-programming interfaces (APIs) for free.

(As of today, the APIs that Microsoft is making available to developers are the same communications-protocol-related ones that Microsoft was required to provide by Department of Justice and European Commission antitrust authorities. By June, Microsoft will add more APIs to this list -- specifically those related to the .Net Framework, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007. It sounds like Microsoft is planning to make the interfaces and protocols for its eXtensible Application Markup Language, or XAML, available to developers at some point, too.)

For developers who want to implement these APIs in a "non-commercial" way, there will be no charge. I guess that means Samba won't be getting its 10,000 Euros back? (I've asked Samba if they might be getting at least a partial discount; no word yet.)

But for those developers who want to create commercial implementations using these APIs, Microsoft will be charging what its officials are calling a "very low" royalty rate. Microsoft will provide reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) license coverage. But if a developer plans to commercial distribute code implementing Microsoft-patented protocols, the distributor still will need a patent license from Microsoft, officials said -- just like the ones Novell, Xandros, Linspire and TurboLinux already have signed.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made it clear that today's announcements are not about Microsoft making its IP "freely available."

"We have valuable IP in our patents," Ballmer told conference call attendees. "In some senses we are opening up, but we are retaining our valuable IP assets."

Ballmer said Microsoft plans to continue to seek to monetize any technology that includes Microsoft patented protocols or interfaces, and that Microsoft still plans to protect vigorously its trade secrets.

Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie said that Microsoft's February 21 interoperability announcement represented "a very important strategic shift for every engineer" at Microsoft. Do you agree?

Topics: Open Source, Microsoft, Software Development

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Sorry 'bout that

    [i]But if a developer plans to commercial distribute code implementing Microsoft-patented protocols, the distributor still will need a patent license from Microsoft, officials said ? just like the ones Novell, Xandros, Linspire and TurboLinux already have signed.[/i]

    Which means, folx, that the agreements that these companies have isn't worth the invisible ink [1] that the fine print was written in. Either they don't need that piece of paper from Microsoft in the first place or else they're violating the licenses on the code itself.

    [1] apparently of the urine-based type
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • You seem to work on the premise that

      technology and Microsoft are 2 different things.

      Microsoft would do well to understand that, perhaps they should attempt to hire you?

      FINANCIAL MARKETS : Get out of food, get out of computing (how humans develop and interact), employ good people instead of greedy self interested idiots, prove your worth, don't just be thrust upon us.

      DEMOCRACY : You can choose between smoking Marlboro or Bensons because you're free. What if I don't want to smoke?
      fr0thy
  • Got it...

    Microsoft won't sue application programmers who program applications that interface with the application programming interfaces.
    Jeffroooooo
    • Unless

      Microsoft reserves the right to do what it pleases, when it pleases, in its own best interests, notwithstanding its supposed point of being.
      The effect on its own consumers (who in my mind get everything that they deserve until they wake up) is not in its shareholders interest (so lost is the company).

      The shareholders are as pathetic as the company itself.

      Microsoft is killing American greed. Can America recover? Who cares, they never did.
      fr0thy
  • Don't trust MS as far as I can throw a truck

    nt
    D T Schmitz
    • Trust

      You can trust Microsoft to absolutely without fail to ruthlessly selfishly follow what it believes to be it self interest. to utterly monopolize whatever it can. This is trustworthy nothing else is.
      Altotus
  • XAML?

    What aspects of XAML are not already documented and freely available here: http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms747122.aspx ????
    TheTruthisOutThere@...
    • Well now

      [i]What aspects of XAML are not already documented and freely available here:[/i]

      That's the question, isn't it?
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Do you even know what XAML is?

        Because if you did, you might be able to contribute something substantive.
        TheTruthisOutThere@...
        • Why don't you tell us, 'o wonderful sage...

          Before you google it yourself and tell us...
          hasta la Vista, bah-bie
    • Message has been deleted.

      fr0thy
    • And what good does that do?

      ???
      storm14k
  • lol...

    [i]...Microsoft still plans to protect vigorously its trade secrets.[/i]... by making those public.... ha, ha , ha!
    Has anyone heard of a 'public secret'?
    This is just a continuation of the same FUD campain.
    Linux Geek
    • It's not FUD

      Microsoft created the Internet, the computer, the ability to use them. Not only have they given us "the best yet value", they're now being EVEN MORE kind and allowing the Open Source world to jump ship from its sick cancerous sharing and working together mentality to instead put it to use for the benefit of their shareholders - who otherwise have been shafted by an off-balance-sheet liability.

      Hooray, Microsoft will invent humans next. Trust capitalism, it will always sell you the antidote to the poison it sold you (at a premium, but does it actually work though hmmmm....)
      fr0thy
  • Focus

    I think you've answered your own question as to why this is significant, MJ... it's not that Microsoft is becoming all soft and cuddly, it's that they have finally figured out what side the bread is buttered on and are honing in on it. They were wasting their time and generating a ton of bad press going after the small, non-commercial projects and threatening everyone and their dog with lawsuits.

    Most of those threats were groundless and we all knew it; they were never going to start suing customers or potential customers. Not only would they not recover much, they would lose customers, and invite further governmental intervention.

    This really IS a significant strategic move, if not in the way that most people seem predisposed to view it--it represents Ballmer clearing the decks, ignoring the petty problems of the average small OSS project, and allowing the company (and no doubt its legal team) to focus on the significant threats and act against them without getting regulated to death. Moreover, it may even help them with the OSS community. There will still be zealots at the fringes, but there is a big difference between defending your own right to develop software in peace and to "scratch an itch" and developing Red Hat's ability to generate sizeable profit margins.

    I don't think it will happen overnight, but I don't think this is fluff because it really is in Microsoft's best interests to stop jabbing the hornet's nest and start swatting the threats outside it. If there is one thing that Microsoft is, it is practical; and if it takes them a little longer to react to sea changes these days, they're still capable of turning the ship on a dime when they do.
    IMS_Scott
    • But how big an itch?

      Where is the line one has to cross between being under MS's radar and being under fire?

      Suppose I use their protocols to build a free version of Office that's 100% functionally compatible - AND, thanks to their documents, 100% interoperable.

      Do you think I'd still be safe?
      TheWerewolf
      • The line is the dollar signs

        As long as you aren't selling it--sure, you're safe. That's exactly the fine print Mary Jo is talking about. They can't just yank the rug out from under they've entered into the covenant not to sue (IANAL).

        When money starts changing hands it's a different story, but to use your example, it's extraordinarily unlikely that anyone is going to build a version of Office that's 100% functional and compatible unless they're making money on it somewhere. More power to ya' if you want to try, but if you haven't read Joel Spolsky's analysis of the complexity of duplicating [i]just the file formats[/i] you should. It's not nearly as easy as everyone seems to think. Those thousands of developers that Microsoft has on the payroll aren't just sitting on their thumbs--duplicating that work isn't trivial even if you know how they did it. That's the catch, if you will; Microsoft has figured that out as well, and that non-commercial development doesn't have that sort of threat to them.
        IMS_Scott
        • Global Co Op

          ...maybe a single entity doesn't but if the Linux community worldwide got together. Millions of independent cost free developers, many with a challenge to MS attitude, could surely develop such a tool and very quickly I suspect.
          bruce.robbie@...
        • Message has been deleted.

          fr0thy
  • RE: Reading the fine print on Microsoft's new open-source promises

    Ballmer said Microsoft plans to continue to seek to monetize any technology that includes Microsoft patented protocols or interfaces, and that Microsoft still plans to protect vigorously its trade secrets. Ballmer is taking the fifth amendment here (trade secrets).get the cat out!
    razparker