MS Office XML Formats Not OK with GNU

Microsoft's insistence that users of the Open XML format attribute it in their code renders the license not truly open source, experts say.

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead 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."

/zimages/3/28571.gifMac 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.