Open XML Incompatible With GPL

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2005-06-20 Print this article Print

The royalty-free license under which Microsoft Corp. plans to make its upcoming Office Open XML Formats widely available is incompatible with the GNU General Public License.

The royalty-free license under which Microsoft Corp. plans to make its upcoming Office Open XML Formats widely available is incompatible with the GNU General Public License and will prevent many open-source and free-software projects from using them, advocates say.

In addition, a leading patent official, Dan Ravicher, is questioning the validity and enforceability of Microsofts license and suggests that open-source and free-software developers need not comply with its conditions.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., first made its Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas available in late 2003 under a royalty-free license. Then, earlier this month, Office officials said they not only plan to make the new XML file formats the default in Office 12, due next year, but also to make them available to anyone under that same license.

But Richard Stallman of Boston, president of the Free Software Foundation and the author of the GPL, dismissed any benefit to the open-source and free-software community from the move. The conditions imposed by the current license were "designed to prohibit all free software. It covers only code that implements, precisely, the Microsoft formats, which means that a program under this license does not permit modification," Stallman said.

"The freedom to modify the software for private use and the freedom to publish modified versions are two of the essential components in the definition of free software. If these freedoms are lacking, the program is not free software," he said.

Because the GPL is a "copyleft" license (a license that makes programs free and requires that all the modifications and extensions of the programs also be free), applying Microsofts restrictive license to GPL-covered programs would violate the GPL, Stallman said.

Jean Paoli, senior director of XML architecture for Microsoft, said, "Microsoft is committed to open XML file formats, and this move shows that we have moved away from binary content that no one can access."

However, Microsoft has included a provision that requires developers who use Office Open XML Formats to attribute the use of the file format in their code. This requirement could preclude any technology that uses the file formats from being used in Linux and other open-source technologies licensed under the GPL, Paoli said.

"The GPL may not allow code that is attributable to another company like Microsoft to be included. Our goal was to make it available to anyone who can use it without their having to ask Microsofts permission or return any modifications to us," Paoli said.

Patent specialists, such as Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, in New York, suggest that those in the free-software and open-source development community need not comply with the license because of questions regarding Microsofts licensable rights.

"If [Microsoft has] rights and a license is needed, then the term in the license that requires attribution by the licensee of all of its downstream licenses is, in fact, not compatible with the GPL," Ravicher said. "However, we should not presume Microsoft has any valid rights here."

While Iyer Venkatesan, a product line manager for Sun Microsystems Inc.s client systems group, in Santa Clara, Calif., welcomed Microsofts decision to make its Office Open XML Formats available as a good first move, "Customers and partners may meet the new file formats with resistance or skepticism since Microsofts XML file format is not compliant with the OASIS [Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards] OpenDocument file format," he said.

But the move would make it easier for Suns StarOffice desktop productivity suite to interoperate with Office going forward, Venkatesan said.

Peter Galli has been a financial/technology reporter for 12 years at leading publications in South Africa, the UK and the US. He has been Investment Editor of South Africa's Business Day Newspaper, the sister publication of the Financial Times of London.

He was also Group Financial Communications Manager for First National Bank, the second largest banking group in South Africa before moving on to become Executive News Editor of Business Report, the largest daily financial newspaper in South Africa, owned by the global Independent Newspapers group.

He was responsible for a national reporting team of 20 based in four bureaus. He also edited and contributed to its weekly technology page, and launched a financial and technology radio service supplying daily news bulletins to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which were then distributed to some 50 radio stations across the country.

He was then transferred to San Francisco as Business Report's U.S. Correspondent to cover Silicon Valley, trade and finance between the US, Europe and emerging markets like South Africa. After serving that role for more than two years, he joined eWeek as a Senior Editor, covering software platforms in August 2000.

He has comprehensively covered Microsoft and its Windows and .Net platforms, as well as the many legal challenges it has faced. He has also focused on Sun Microsystems and its Solaris operating environment, Java and Unix offerings. He covers developments in the open source community, particularly around the Linux kernel and the effects it will have on the enterprise.

He has written extensively about new products for the Linux and Unix platforms, the development of open standards and critically looked at the potential Linux has to offer an alternative operating system and platform to Windows, .Net and Unix-based solutions like Solaris.

His interviews with senior industry executives include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux operating system, Sun CEO Scot McNealy, and Bill Zeitler, a senior vice president at IBM.

For numerous examples of his writing you can search under his name at the eWEEK Website at


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