Microsoft Promises Not to Sue over Web Services Specs

The company issues an "Open Specification Promise" that it will not sue developers or customers who use any of 35 Web Service specifications.

Microsoft is promising not to take any legal action against developers or customers who use any of 35 Web Service specifications.

The software maker, based in Redmond, Wash., issued a new "Open Specification Promise" on its Interoperability Web page on Sept. 12.

The full text of the promise, the list of all the specifications covered, as well as a detailed question and answer section can be found here.

"The Open Specification Promise is part of Microsofts overall interoperability commitment to customers and is for 35 core Web services specifications, including SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol] and all Web services security specifications," Tom Robertson, Microsofts general manager for interoperability and standards, told eWEEK Sept. 12.

Microsoft is also making "a personal promise to every individual and organization in the world that they can use any patented technology Microsoft has that is necessary to implement these Web Services specifications," he said.

Microsoft has recently been reaching out to the open-source community to try to find ways to overcome the incompatibilities between software distributed under the GNU GPL (General Public License) and its own commercial software.

Microsoft and XenSource also recently announced a strategic relationship for the development of technology to provide interoperability between Xen-enabled Linux and Windows Server virtualization.

This latest promise follows other community-building efforts by Microsoft, such as the licensing of its source code through the Shared Source Initiative and the hosting of collaborative development projects on CodePlex and SourceForge, Robertson said.

It also comes as Microsoft waits to hear back from the European Commission about what it needs to do so that Windows Vista can ship on time in Europe.

/zimages/5/28571.gifEuropean open-source developers have said that Microsofts licensing needs to be GPL-compatible. Click here to read more.

The new Microsoft promise is being well received by members of the open-source community, many of whom were consulted about its text.

Mark Webbink, the deputy general counsel at Linux vendor Red Hat, based in Raleigh, N.C., commended Microsofts efforts to reach out to representatives from the open-source community and solicit their feedback on the text of the promise, as well as the companys willingness to make modifications in response to those comments.

In his personal blog, Andy Updegrove of Boston-based technology law firm Gesmer Updegrove, said he is impressed with the new covenant and pleased that Microsoft is expanding its use of "what I consider to be a highly desirable tool for facilitating the implementation of open standards, in particular where those standards are of interest to the open source community."

The promise is also similar in most substantive respects to the covenant not to assert patents that Microsoft issued in 2005 with respect to its Office 2003 XML Reference Schema, Updegrove said.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Microsofts move to open up its Office file formats.

But there were two important improvements intended to make it more clearly compatible with open-source licensing, he said, and which clarify that the promise not to assert any relevant patents extends to everyone in the distribution chain of a product, from the original vendor through to the end user, and to clarify that the promise covers a partial as well as a full implementation of a standard.

Microsoft has also posted a list of frequently asked questions and its answers on the Interoperability page, where it says that no one needs to sign anything or even include a reference to anything.

"Anyone is free to implement the specification(s), as they wish and do not need to make any mention of or reference to Microsoft. Anyone can use or implement these specification(s) with their technology, code, solution, etc. You must agree to the terms in order to benefit from the promise; however, you do not need to sign a license agreement, or otherwise communicate your agreement to Microsoft," it says.

With regard to the issue of why the promise does not apply to things that are merely referenced in the specification, Microsoft said it is a common practice for technology licenses to focus on the specifics of what is detailed in the specification and exclude "enabling technologies. If we included patent claims to the enabling technology, then as an extreme example, it could be argued that one needs computer and operating system patents to implement almost any information technology specification. No such broad patent licenses to referenced technologies are ever given for specific industry standards," it said.

But Microsoft deflected the issue of whether the promise was consistent with open-source licensing, namely the GPL, and whether the specification(s) could be implemented without concerns about Microsoft patents.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read about the issues involved in the first rewrite of the GPL in 15 years.

"We leave it to those implementing these technologies to understand the legal environments in which they operate. This includes people operating in a GPL environment. Because the GPL is not universally interpreted the same way by everyone, we cant give anyone a legal opinion about how our language relates to the GPL or other open-source software licenses," it said.

But, based on feedback from the open-source community, "we believe that a broad audience of developers can implement the specification(s)," Microsoft said.

However, Red Hats Webbink was more specific, saying the text of the Open Specification Promise gave sufficient flexibility to implement the listed specifications in software under free and open-source licenses.

/zimages/5/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in Web services.