Microsoft's Open Spec Is Bad for GPL, Law Group Says

The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), which provides legal representation "to protect and advance free and open source software," has issued an analysis of Microsoft's "Open Specification Promise" (OSP) and its compatibility with the GNU General Public License (GPL).

The SFLC's verdict is a resounding thumbs down on the prospect of Microsoft's OSP supporting the GPL. What's more, the SFLC's analysis also rejects making Microsoft's Office Open XML document format into an international standard.

The SFLC's analysis is provided in a document issued on March 12 called "Microsoft's Open Specification Promise: No Assurance for GPL."

Essentially, the SFLC argues that Microsoft's OSP statement is inconsistent with the GNU GPL. The point appears to center on a basic GPL principle that "using the GNU GPL will require that all the released improved versions be free software," according to a GNU FAQ describing the license.

The SFLC finds fault with the following statement in Microsoft's OSP: "New versions of previously covered specifications will be separately considered for addition to the list."
In the SFLC's view, that means that "every time a specification changes, Microsoft can effectively revoke the OSP as it had applied to previous versions of that same specification."

The conclusion of the SFLC is that "the OSP provides no assurance to GPL developers." They also add that "it is unsafe to rely upon the OSP for any free software implementation."

One response to the SFLC's views came from Gray Knowlton, group product manager for the Microsoft Office system. In his Gray Matter blog, he pointed to Microsoft's OSP FAQ, which states that the OSP is intended to apply to open source developers.

The OSP FAQ also provides Microsoft's response to the question about how the OSP applies to the GPL. However, that FAQ simply advises people to get a legal interpretation of the GPL. Gray echoes the FAQ's response, stating that "The FAQ cited just states what everyone knows and acknowledges, the GPL is a copyright license that is drafted in a way that leaves many issues (not just those related to patent rights) open to many interpretations."

Gray makes a point that IBM and Sun Microsystems have similar legal policies for open source solutions, using language similar to Microsoft's OSP. However, open source author Bruce Perens responds to Gray's point in the blog, saying, "The reason that GPL developers find it legally possible to work with Sun and IBM is that both companies have contributed directly to the development of GPL and LGPL code implementing the same standards that their covenants cover."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor, Enterprise Group, at 1105 Media Inc.