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November 22, 2005

Microsoft offers “not to sue” Office format users

Microsoft Corp's new license for its Office Open XML formats will include a "covenant not to sue" users of the formats, although it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to make the proposed standards compatible with some open source software.

By CBR Staff Writer

Details of the new license have not yet been published, although a number of Microsoft executives had expressed their hopes that it should appease the concerns of open source software developers.

The company’s Office program manager, Brian Jones, wrote in his corporate blog that the irrevocable commitment not to sue… should clear the way for GPL development, while Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative noted in his blog that the terms of this submission should be broadly appealing to developers of all stripes.

With the details of the license not yet published it remains to be seen if that will be the case, but a promise not to sue users of the format would not appear to circumvent the problems with the original license that meant that it was incompatible with some open source software licenses.

The license offered royalty-free access to the XML schema, which will become the default formats used by the Office 12 application suite, but included a requirements to attribute the format to Microsoft, making it incompatible with the GNU General Public License.

There were also potentially problems with Microsoft’s original Office 2003 XML Reference Schema Patent License, which precluded sublicensing, one of the key tenets of open source software. So does the new license really clear the way for GPL development?

In regards to whether this will impact GPL developers or what happens if someone combines the Office XML schema distributed with GPL code; we can’t comment on the impact of our licensing approach on certain types of developers or answer hypothetical scenarios that may involve some legal analysis, stated a Microsoft spokesperson.

It’s not appropriate for us to interpret the GPL or other licenses that we didn’t write. That being said, we think our licensing approach should be broadly appealing to a wide set of developers.

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The new license is being brought in to ensure that the Office Open XML Formats, which Microsoft recently announced will be submitted to Ecma for consideration as a standard, are open to anyone.

Microsoft’s choice of Ecma for the standardization effort could also pose problems for many open source advocates due to Ecma’s support for licenses being granted under reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms, which is a non-prescriptive term that some fear enables intellectual property holders to quietly discriminate against open source developers that might be unable to pay reasonable license fees.

The Oasis standardization group fell foul of the open source community earlier this year when it expanded its intellectual property right policies to allow RAND licensing, although that did not stop the progress of the OpenDocument office format, which was originally developed by the open source applications community, was adopted as an Oasis standard in May, and is currently being considered by ISO.

While OpenDocument did not warrant a mention in Microsoft’s announcement of its plans to offer the Office Open XML Formats to Ecma, the format, and particularly the decision by the State of Massachusetts to adopt it as the standard for all office documents by January 2007, has had a significant impact.

There have been numerous calls before for Microsoft to open up its office file formats to an industry standards body, with the company stating that it would rather keep control of the formats so that it can provide backward compatibility for the estimated 400 million Office users worldwide.

Massachusetts’s decision to adopt an internationally recognized standard specification as its preferred office applications format appears to have changed all that, even if Matusow claimed that discussions with Massachusetts were not the direct catalyst of this action.

At an open meeting in mid-September Eric Kriss, the State’s secretary of administration and finance, outlined what Microsoft would need to do to get its Office formats reconsidered for inclusion in the new Information Domain – Enterprise Technical Reference Model.

Three things were outlined by Kriss: dropping the patent on the format, publishing the standard for peer review, and making provisions for future changes to be handled via joint stewardship. In other words, turning the Office Open XML Formats into a truly open standard.

Now that appears to be on the cards, with Microsoft noting that will also ask Ecma to submit the formats to ISO, the Office Open XML Formats could be back in the running for Massachusetts. Whether they will be finding their way into open source Office alternatives remains to be seen.

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