Did Microsoft Block Free Software from Licensing Scheme?

By Matthew Broersma  |  Posted 2005-01-25

Did Microsoft Block Free Software from Licensing Scheme?

One of Microsoft Corp.s most vocal opponents on Tuesday accused the company of blocking Linux, Samba and other major open-source projects from taking part in a protocol licensing scheme mandated by the European Commissions antitrust ruling.

The criticism from the Free Software Foundation Europe came a day after Microsoft announced it wouldnt challenge a court decision requiring it to comply immediately with the sanctions imposed last year by the EC. Microsoft may have agreed to comply, but ensuring effective compliance will be another matter, FSF Europe said.

The group represents the interests of open-source (or free software) developers, and its GPL (GNU General Public License) is used by major open-source projects such as the Linux operating system kernel and Samba, which allows file and print interoperability between Linux and Windows networks.

Click here to read about EU lawmakers second-guessing of a contested IT patent plan.

Microsofts licensing terms for its Windows server protocols explicitly block Linux, Samba and other projects covered by the GPL from taking part, according to Carlo Piana, a partner at Milan law firm Tamos Piana & Partners, which represents FSF Europe.

"Microsoft has proposed a licensing agreement blatantly tailored to exclude free software from accessing it," he said.

On Monday, Microsoft said it wouldnt appeal a December decision from Luxembourgs Court of First Instance (CFI) requiring the Redmond, Wash., company to immediately comply with the ECs remedies, but said it will carry on with its appeal on the broader merits of the case, a process expected to last five years. Victory in that process could ultimately overturn the ECs antitrust ruling.

Open-source advocates have said the ruling in itself isnt necessarily significant. While the CFIs decision was a victory for open-source software, the sanctions themselves are "timid," Piana said. "It will take little effort on Microsofts side to make them ineffective," he said.

Industry observers doubt that one of the remedies—that Microsoft make available a version of Windows without a built-in media player—will have much effect because its unlikely it will meet with much market demand from end-users or PC makers.

OEMs received the software last week and Dell Inc., for one, has said it may take advantage of "Windows XP Reduced Media Edition" to offer a customized media PC.

Next Page: Secret protocols.

Secret Protocols

More important to open-source developers and vendors is the other major remedy, which forces Microsoft to license secret server protocols to competitors on "reasonable, nondiscriminatory terms."

Microsoft has already done something similar to comply with a 2002 U.S. antitrust decision—it offers Windows client protocols for license under the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program, or MCPP. These protocols are available for worldwide license, so European companies already have access.

The commissions decision adds another category of protocols for license: the protocols Windows desktops use to communicate with servers.

This requirement is designed to prevent Microsoft from using its desktop operating system monopoly as leverage in the server operating system market, by making sure that Windows clients always work best with Windows servers.

It should also ensure that competing desktop systems can communicate with Windows servers as well as Windows desktops can. Microsoft has already added the new protocols to its MCPP site.

But if developers want to build the protocols into products, they must agree not to distribute that product in source-code form, or to subject it to licenses that require source-code disclosure, a formula that excludes many open-source licenses.

"Under certain circumstances, other licenses may require your implementation to be disclosed in source code form when you distribute your implementation with other technology that is already subject to that other license," Microsoft says in its MCPP license overview.

"You cant subject your authorized implementations to any license that requires you do things that are contrary to the scope of your license and your obligations under the license agreement."

The licensing terms dont stop an open-source developer from creating a separate component, under a proprietary license, that implements the protocols.

"This reads, GNU GPL, get outta here!" Piana said. He pointed out that Samba, the software most Linux implementations rely on for file and print sharing on Windows networks, is licensed under the GPL and thus wouldnt be eligible. "If the commission were to accept this kind of proposal ... the market would not evolve for two or three years, at least," he said.

The FSF will take its concerns to the commission, Piana said, which may negotiate with Microsoft over the licensing terms.

Microsoft argues that the present terms are necessary to protect its trade secrets. "The specifications used to create your protocol implementations are confidential and, along with the source code of those implementations, include Microsoft trade secrets," the license overview says.

A Microsoft spokesman said the licensing terms are not discriminatory. "The same terms are offered to everybody, including the makers of free software," he said.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include commentary from Microsoft.

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