Microsoft Licensing: How Open is Open?

What Microsoft considers "open" and what software developers, especially those in open-source, consider open, are two very different things.

What does Microsoft consider open, when it comes to software licenses?

The Redmond, Wash., software maker must make it possible for third parties to interoperate with its software by making necessary specifications available to software vendors. Thats one of the provisions of the proposed consent decree in the U.S. Department of Justice vs. Microsoft antitrust case ... and one which Microsoft volunteered to enact even before the consent decree was finalized, as an act of good will.

But, not surprisingly, what Microsoft considers "open" and what software vendors, especially those in the open-source community, consider open are two very different things. And one vendor that has been among the most vocal about the need for Microsoft to open up is crying foul.

Microsoft announced in March that it made public a "licensing structure" to allow third-party vendors to obtain access to two Microsoft protocols, Common Internet File System (CIFS) and Server Message Block (SMB). CIFS allows groups of users on a network to share files. Microsoft said it would license the CIFS protocol, as implemented in Windows NT 4.0, available on a royalty-free basis for use on non-Windows clients and servers.

One of the companies that needs access to CIFS for its products to interoperate with Windows is the open-source Samba Team. Earlier this week, Samba posted a note to its Web site, expressing the companys concerns over the terms Microsoft is exacting for CIFS.

Samba is concerned about some of the fine print in the CIFS/SMB licenses--specifically concerning the patents it mentions--and about some of the "anti-GPL" components that could affect the way Samba licenses its own products.

Microsofts insistence on the maintenance of two patents connected to CIFS "just happens to preclude use in GPL code.... which happens to be their greatest competitor to Windows and the server appliance kit," says Samba Team leader Jeremy Allison. "We obviously have a difference in opinions on whether the patents are applicable to CIFS. Time will tell who is right."

Allison also says he doubts that Microsofts CIFS licensing terms are coincidental. "I guess they dont like the fact that Samba on Linux on identical hardware independently benchmarks much faster than Windows 2000," he says.

Microsoft is holding fast to its terms, however. When asked for comment on Sambas statement, Michele Herman, director of IP strategy at Microsoft, said: "It is up to parties implementing the Technical Reference to decide whether or not they want to obtain the rights available under this License Agreement." She added, however, that any party interested in obtaining "broader rights" than those provided under the new CIFS license can request special consideration from Microsoft.

Microsoft has made no bones about the fact that it finds the GPL and open-source software threatening and downright anti-capitalistic. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently cautioned leaders from 70 countries attending the Microsoft Government Leadership Conference in Seattle against the GPL and open source "philosophy," in general.

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