MS Office XML Formats Not OK with GNU

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2005-06-17

MS Office XML Formats Not OK with GNU

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

In addition, a leading patent official is calling into question the validity and enforceability of the Microsoft Corp. license and suggesting that free and open-source software developers need not comply with its conditions.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., first released its Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas in late 2003. Office officials said earlier this month that they planned to make the new XML file formats the default in Office 12, due next year, available to anyone under a royalty-free license.

Read more here about Microsofts introduction of new Open XML Formats in Office 12.

But Richard Stallman, the president of the Free Software Foundation and the author of the GNU GPL, has dismissed any benefit to the free-software community from the move.

The conditions imposed by the current license governing the use of the formats are "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 told eWEEK in an interview.

"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.

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

But Jean Paoli, the senior director of XML architecture for Microsoft, told eWEEK in an interview that "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."

Mac Office 12 is to support XML file formats. Click here to read more.

However, what Microsoft is not trumpeting is a provision that requires anyone who uses the XML file format to attribute this in their code. This could preclude any technology that uses these file formats from being used in Linux and other open-source technologies licensed under the GPL, Paoli admitted.

"I am not a lawyer and so am not the authority on this, but the GPL may not allow code that is attributable to another company like Microsoft to be included. But some other open-source licenses are compatible as far as I know," Paoli said.

"Our goal was to make it available to anyone who can use it without having to ask Microsofts permission or return any modifications to us. Licensees will be able to integrate these formats into their servers, applications and business processes without financial consideration to Microsoft," he added.

When asked for clarification on whether the license for the Open XML Formats would be compatible with the GPL, a Microsoft spokesperson told eWEEK that "we dont want to make the habit of commenting on others licenses. What we will say is that you can use Microsofts royalty-free license with any open-source license that allows for attribution back to Microsoft."

Next Page: Microsoft may not have the right to expect compliance.

Microsoft May Not Have

the Right to Expect Compliance">

Others, like Dan Ravicher, the executive director of the Public Patent Foundation in New York, go even further and suggest that those in the free-software and open-source communities need not comply with the license, as it is questionable whether Microsoft actually has any rights for which people would need a license.

"If they do have rights and a license is needed, then the term in the license to Microsofts rights that requires attribution by the licensee of all of its downstream licenses is in fact not compatible with the GPL, just like the original BSD license, which required a similar attribution, is not GPL-compliant," he told eWEEK.

"However, we should not presume that Microsoft has any valid rights here. They might like to give that impression, but it is not clear. If they dont have any rights, then no one needs a license from them, so whatever terms such a license may contain are irrelevant, because no one needs to abide by them," he said.

The beginning of the patent license where this requirement is set forth states that "Microsoft may have patents and/or patent applications that are necessary for you to license in order to make, sell or distribute software programs that read or write files that comply with the Microsoft specifications for the Office Schemas," Ravicher said.

"If they had any applicable patents, theyd most assuredly tell people what those patents are. I cant see that they have done that. So, all theyve said is that they may have patents and, if they do, these are the terms under which theyll license them to you. While it is true the terms of such a license are GPL-incompatible, there is no need to comply with them until we are certain they have something that must be licensed," he said. Others, like Iyer Venkatesan, the product line manager in Sun Microsystems Inc.s client systems group, said they feel that it remains to be seen whether Microsofts decision to make its Office Open XML Formats available is a good move or not.

"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, which is the industry-standard XML file format," Venkatesan said.

Asked whether the move would make it easier for Suns office competitor, StarOffice, to interoperate with Office in the future, Venkatesan said it would. "XML in general is much easier to import and export than Microsofts previous binary file formats. But Microsofts XML file format is still very closely related to their Office applications and, as a result, they did not design their XML file format to be vendor-independent. It could still be difficult for other vendors to adopt the Microsoft format," he said.

Also, unlike an openly developed file format like the OASIS OpenDocument format, Microsoft could change the format without other parties being aware of the change until Microsoft released the next version of its product.

While StarOffice will continue to support any new Office file formats, "We would prefer to see Microsoft adopt the open and broadly supported OASIS OpenDocument standard, which has been endorsed and supported by companies like Sun, IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Adobe, KOffice and AbiWord," Venkatesan said.

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