Microsoft not so 'open' after all?

Microsoft not so 'open' after all?

Head of open-source group says more than half of licenses don't pass muster

The head of the open-source group that will decide whether to certify Microsoft's "shared source" software licenses as open-source licenses said that more than half of Redmond's licences appear to automatically fail the group's rules.

Michael Tiemann, president of the non-profit Open Source Initiative, said that provisions in three out of five of Microsoft's shared-source licenses that restrict source code to running only on the Windows operating system would contravene a fundamental tenet of open-source licenses as laid out by the OSI. By those rules, code must be free for anyone to view, use, modify as they see fit.

"I am certain that if they say Windows-only machines, that would not fly because that would restrict the field of use," said Tiemann in an interview late Friday.

At the OSCON show in Portland last Thursday, Microsoft announced its plans to submit its shared-source licenses to the 9-year-old OSI for approval.

Microsoft did not immediately return a request for comment on which licenses it planned to submit to the OSI, or whether it plans to modify them beforehand.

Tiemann, who is also CTO of Linux distributor and Microsoft rival Red Hat, said the OSI is not singling out Microsoft.

"Microsoft will not be getting special treatment -- good or bad," he said. "They will get the same treatment we give Sun, IBM, SimpleText, or individuals that submit licenses -- fully transparent discussion that involves the community."

By his count, the OSI has rejected "two dozen" or so license applications for language that restricted the use or redistribution of software and its source code, even when the restrictions were written with what Tiemann called "moral" intent. For instance, the OSI has rejected license applications from Quakers and other pacifists who sought to prevent the use of software for weapons such as landmines.

"I am highly sympathetic to that point of view," he said. "But the OSI is not in the business of legislating moral use. We allow all use, commercial or non-commercial, mortal or medical."

The best-known open-source licenses approved by the OSI include the General Public License (GPL) used by Linux, which is currently being rewritten, as well as the Mozilla Public License used by the Firefox Web browser.

Microsoft's Community License was actually submitted to the OSI for approval in December 2005 -- though by a third-party, not by Redmond itself. The license was rejected at that time.

If approved, Microsoft would not be the first vendor not normally associated with open-source to have its licenses evaluated or approved by the OSI. Among the 50 software licenses certified by the OSI include licenses from vendors such as CA, RealNetworks, Nokia, Sybase, and Apple.

Tiemann said that the process of approving or rejecting Microsoft's application -- expected to be formally submitted by the end of this week, according to the OSI -- should take 3 to 4 months. It is an open process involving the OSI's list-serv, License-Discuss, to which anyone can submit or view comments after subscribing via e-mail .

Tiemann said that the rate of new licenses approved the OSI has slowed down drastically in the last several years -- the result, he acknowledged, of widespread complaints in the community that there are already enough licenses for developers to choose from.

As a result of recognition of the "license proliferation" problem, most of the licenses approved in recent years have only been overhauls to existing ones, he said.

"Sometimes you make progress by opening up the tent," he said. But generally speaking, OSI "has one goal: to cure the license proliferation problem."

That, he acknowledged, makes it harder for any new license submissions, whoever the vendor. Tiemann cited the rancorous debate within OSI over a new license submitted by enterprise wiki software maker, Socialtext Inc., which was initially rejected by the OSI board but then approved at the recent OSCON show.

Tiemann emphasized repeatedly that the OSI will run the process so that all discussion about the merits of Microsoft's submission will be restricted to the licenses themselves, not Microsoft's oft-antagonistic history with open-source or speculation about its intentions.

"If people are judging Microsoft the company, I'll step in and say this is not an appropriate question," he said.

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