5.3 Microsoft Shared Source Initiative


Microsoft has historically wrung great profits from proprietary software licensing. Its business model, along with its substantial profit margins, is completely dependent upon licensing access to the software that it controls. In response to the growing market for open source and free software in the last 15 years, Microsoft has made clear that it has no intention of changing its approach. In fact, its public position and actions seem to signify that the company is becoming more aggressive about its licensing programs and about protecting its intellectual property through strategies such as patent procurement and litigation.

Yet, historically, Microsoft has provided at least some business partners and customers access to its source code, as well as obtained access to the source code of others for inclusion in its products, or for ensuring interoperability. New demands are also growing: as a result of open source, the developer community is increasingly used to having liberal access to whatever source code it needs to conduct business; governments and customers now expect to be able to audit the source code that makes up the products that they depend upon daily; and academics and start-ups alike understand that open source is an efficient way to conduct shared research projects. As the open source movement continues to gain steam, Microsoft, like many other software companies, has felt pressure to provide public access to its source code.

Microsoft cannot easily turn to existing open source licenses and communities in order to solve this problem. Large-scale proprietary software products represent a complex web of legal relationships between all of those who own copyrights, trademarks, and patents that apply not only to the code, but also to arcane elements such as the communications protocols and media formats being used. Were Microsoft to relicense its code, all participants would have to be contacted and terms renegotiated, or else replacement code would need to be written and tested. As described in Chapter 3, when Netscape open source licensed its proprietary Communicator software under the Mozilla Public License, it had to negotiate with third-party providers of code that had been part of the Communicator system and had to rewrite substantial sections of code when some of those providers refused to permit their code to be released under the MPL. This is a difficult process, even for the largest companies.

Beyond the legal difficulties involved, Microsoft's software business model could not possibly sustain the blow to its profit margins that would occur should its software become freely available. Companies that generate income through services or hardware businesses can piggyback directly on open source by refocusing on those aspects of their business. But with almost all of its revenues derived from the licensing of proprietary software, Microsoft needs an approach to source code access that permits it to continue to use its current business model.

The Microsoft Shared Source Initiative is Microsoft's attempt to solve this source code access dilemma. The Shared Source Initiative has many facets, and it is difficult to describe briefly. It can be most simply explained as an umbrella under which Microsoft positions its many different software-licensing practices. On its face, it is a program for facilitating access to Microsoft source code, but, considered more broadly, it is also a lobbying effort aimed at explaining and defending the benefits of strong intellectual property laws to the world at large.

Within this system, Microsoft has defined five key source code licensing attributes:

  1. The ability to view and reference source code without changing it

  2. The ability to enhance debugging with source code access

  3. The ability to modify source code for local use only

  4. The ability to distribute products based on modified sources for non-commercial purposes

  5. The ability to commercialize products built on modified source code

Using these attributes, Microsoft has carefully tailored a number of software licenses that grant more or less restricted access to the source code for many of its software products, depending upon a number of variables such as what country the licensee resides in; how important the product is to Microsoft's core business; and whether the software is being used for commercial purposes, charitable use, or academic research. For some products, such as Windows, there may be literally dozens of different licensing options.

Because the Microsoft Shared Source Initiative is so complex, and each license is the result of relatively laborious negotiation within Microsoft and between Microsoft and its users and developers with product and location specificity built into each license the project has none of the simplicity or transparency of open source and free software licenses. It is, at least at this time, little more than a branded extension of Microsoft's current commercial licensing practices.

Within Microsoft's existing business ecosystem, however, the Shared Source Initiative has already borne copious amounts of fruit. Awareness of the initiative within Microsoft product teams has resulted in standardized and simplified ways for customers, subcontractors, support firms, hardware vendors, academic researchers, and governments to obtain access to code that would have been off-limits or very difficult to access in the past. It has also catalyzed internal analysis and product planning, which has resulted in deeper Microsoft participation in existing open source communities and processes.

Beyond the edges of the ecosystem populated by Microsoft dependents, reaction to the Shared Source Initiative has been much more ambivalent. To many people, the program seems to be little more than a series of carefully scaled permissions governing access to Microsoft's closely guarded source code. Although some of the licenses involved allow for unfettered change and redistribution of underlying code, the code to which these licenses apply is not core application or operating system code. Developers have no real opportunity to make changes to such core assets without first agreeing to very restrictive terms. As a result, the resulting collaboration between Microsoft and external developers bears little relationship to the open source or open source-like development relationships described in this and previous chapters.

Despite its readily apparent lack of enthusiasm for them, Microsoft has been actively following developments in the open source movement and slowly adapting to them via the Shared Source Initiative. Microsoft has begun to use existing open source licenses for some of its newer projects. Although these projects are minor at this point, the trend is very likely to continue because of the great advantages that open source has to offer, even to Microsoft, at least under certain circumstances. Microsoft is also beginning to understand how open source approaches can be "safely" integrated with its traditional business practices, and as a result of this, Microsoft's intellectual property agenda is likely to cause profound change within existing open source practices, through litigation, lobbying, lawmaking, and "coopetition." Although Microsoft's positioning of shared source as an alternative to open source might seem absurd, it should not be lightly dismissed.

As this book was going to press, Microsoft released its Windows Installer XML (WiX) technology under the Common Public License (CPL), an Open Source Initiative-approved license, at http://sourceforge.net/projects/wix/. This marks a first, though how far Microsoft will go with such projects is yet to be seen.

In terms of placing various licensing models on a spectrum, the GPL or the BSD-model license would fall on one end, depending on the nature of the "freedom" being measured; obviously, the classic proprietary license would fall upon the other, in terms of the restrictions imposed on licensees. In the continuum would fall the Perl, the MPL, the SCSL and the other licenses already described. The Microsoft Shared Source Initiative falls quite near the classic proprietary model in its function: not a surprising result, considering that Microsoft is by far history's largest beneficiary of the proprietary software licensing model. But, nonetheless, it has already, at least with regards to some applications, moved closer to a true open source model, and the Initiative is a project worth watching.

As this book was going to press, Microsoft released its Windows Installer XML (WiX) technology under the Common Public License (CPL), an Open Source Initiative-approved license, at http://sourceforge.net/projects/wix/. This marks a first, though how far Microsoft will go with such projects is yet to be seen.

Open Source and Free Software Licensing
Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing
ISBN: 0596005814
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 78

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