I wrote a while back about how the European Commission required Microsoft to publish its API and protocol documentation for some server products. At that time there were concerns about certain patent claims, which could possibly be used against developers using the protocol specifications, and how the required one-time fee payment could be compatible with open source licenses. Much of the specifics of the agreement were not known, and speculation and concerns ran rampant.
However, it now appears as if the concerns were mostly unfounded.
Today, the Samba team announced that they have signed an agreement with Microsoft, based on the ruling by the European Commission.
Andrew Tridgell, creator of Samba, said, "We are very pleased to be able to get access to the technical information necessary to continue to develop Samba as a Free Software project. Although we were disappointed the decision did not address the issue of patent claims over the protocols, it was a great achievement for the European Commission and for enforcement of antitrust laws in Europe. The agreement allows us to keep Samba up to date with recent changes in Microsoft Windows, and also helps other Free Software projects that need to interoperate with Windows".
The announcement also contained important clarifications, addressing some of the concerns. For example, is any code written against those protocols using the documentation still compatible with the GPL, the most common open source license? Turns out that it is:
Volker Lendecke, head of the Samba Team in Europe said, "I am very pleased to see that the European Commission acknowledged Free Software as a valid competitor in the IT industry and that the License conditions on the protocol information offered to the Free Software world are indeed compatible with the GPL.
Here are the details:
After a one-time payment of 10,000 Euro to Microsoft, the developers gained access to the protocol documentation under non-disclosure agreements.
While the specs themselves remain secret and cannot be passed on, the agreement allows the publication of the source code that was written using those specs without any further restriction. This makes the code GPL compatible.
No royalty payments need to be paid to Microsoft.
Another concern were the patents. Here is how that is handled:
Microsoft must tell the Samba developers the list of specific patents, which it claims are related to the Microsoft implementation of the workgroup server protocols.
This does not imply an implicit license to the developers, which helps to simplify the thing greatly.
The Samba developers can then examine those patents and choose implementations that avoid any patented technologies or methods.
Important to note: The patents relate to Microsoft's implementation of the protocols, not the protocols themselves.
To this, the Samba team says:
The patent list provides us with a bounded set of work needed to ensure non-infringement of Samba and other Free Software projects that implement the protocols documented by Microsoft under this agreement. Any patents outside this list cannot be asserted by Microsoft against any implementation developed using the supplied documentation. Unlike the highly dubious patent covenants recently announced by some companies this warranty extends to all third parties. Also unlike past agreements, this agreement has been carefully scrutinized by the Software Freedom Law Center, the premier legal experts for the GPL and Free Software.
Well, it looks like this worked out quite well then. The European Commission did a good job on that after all...
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