Microsoft gives go-ahead to open-source Web services

Company won't assert patents related to 35 Web services specs--a move designed to ease developers' legal concerns.

Microsoft is pledging not to assert its patents pertaining to nearly three dozen Web services specifications--a move designed to ease concerns among developers by creating a legal environment more friendly to open-source software.

The software giant published on Tuesday the Microsoft Open Specification Promise (OSP) on its Web site. The document is meant to encourage use of Web services technology, Microsoft said.

The OSP allows a third party to create software, or an "implementation," based on a set of technical guidelines grouped under the Web services rubric. It does not require people to sign a license and covers distributors and other people who use a non-Microsoft implementation.

In an FAQ on the OSP page, Microsoft said that the move is designed to get more people to use Web services protocols--a set of XML-based standards meant to make products from different vendors work well together.

"It was a simple, clear way, after looking at many different licensing approaches, to reassure a broad audience of developers and customers that the specification(s) could be used for free, easily, now and forever," according to the FAQ.

Microsoft has not yet legally asserted its Web services patents, but the question of royalties and standards, including in open-source software, has been a point of concern among developers.

The specifications, some of which are still going through the standardization process, cover 35 interoperability protocols, including advanced standards, such as WS-Management, which are not yet widely implemented in commercial products.

Microsoft said that it sought feedback from the open-source community in making the promise not to assert patents. Microsoft added that open-source developers do not have to pay any royalties to create open-source products based on the standards.

"We can't give anyone a legal opinion about how our language relates to the GPL (General Public License) or other OSS (open-source software) licenses, but based on feedback from the open source community we believe that a broad audience of developers can implement the specification(s)," Microsoft said in the FAQ.

Lawrence Rosen, an open-source software lawyer at Rosenlaw & Einschlag in Northern California, gave open-source developers a green light to work with the Web services standards.

"This OSP enables the open-source community to implement these standard specifications without having to pay any royalties to Microsoft or sign a license agreement. I'm pleased that this OSP is compatible with free and open-source licenses," Rosen said in a statement on Microsoft's OSP site.

There are already open-source implementations of some of these Web services specifications under development, such as Apache Axis and Apache Synapse at the Apache Foundation.

The pledge not to assert patent mirrors Microsoft legal stance in regards to the XML document specifications in Office 2003, noted Andrew Updegrove, a lawyer at Gesmer Updegrove and a standards expert.

Updegrove said the move should encourage use of these standards and reflects actions taken by many larger technology providers regarding patent pledges.

"Promises and covenants such as the one that Microsoft has announced today have historically been unusual, but have lately been made more frequently, especially after IBM made a well-publicized promise not to assert 500 patents against open-source software. Similar promises followed from Sun Microsystems, Nokia and Oracle, among others," Updegrove noted.

Web services protocols, including those covered in the OSP, are the communications foundation of Vista, the upcoming version of Windows.

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