Microsoft's pseudo-open source: open trap for open-source developers?

Microsoft has open sourced some code. Or has it?

If you believe some of the headlines, Microsoft just open sourced a bunch of software related to its .Net libraries. Don't be fooled. The definition of open source is very clear. This is not open source. Not even a little bit. In fact, this may actually be an insidious trap (more on that below).

Will Hurley captures the move accurately:

Is .NET open source now?...The license indicates that developers can "see" the source code, but Microsoft's not providing any means of copying it. If a developer finds a bug in the code, rather than fixing it themselves and submitting a patch to the community they'll be encouraged to submit feedback via the product feedback center. They're showing us the man behind the curtain, but we're not allowed to speak to him in person just yet. We're still stuck with the giant, disembodied green head. And since community involvement is essential to most open source efforts, well....

In other words, it's not open source. But is it good for developers, anyway?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of eWeek is not nearly so polite, claiming that Microsoft's pseudo-open source is a real, legal danger to any open-source developer foolhardy enough to look at it:

Let's say a year from now, Microsoft does a SCO. They claim that Mono contains code that was stolen from the .NET Framework reference source code. They point at their code, they point at the license, and sure enough, there's similar code. After all, both projects are implementing .NET; there will almost certainly be lines of code that looks alike.

Better still, from Microsoft's point of view, all they need to do is find one Mono programmer who has signed the license to look at the .NET Framework reference source code. With that "proof," they'll claim they've found their smoking gun. SCO failed in its attempts because it never did have any evidence that there was Unix code in Linux.

Microsoft, however, is baiting its trap for Mono programmers with .NET cheese. They'll claim, come that day, about how open it was in letting people look, but not touch, their code. With the combination of "proof" that some Mono code has been stolen from Microsoft and its attempt to muddy the waters about what open source really means, it can look forward to having a much better chance of killing off an open-source project than SCO ever had with Linux.

Far-fetched? Well, not if you look at Microsoft's history. Microsoft is playing to win, and it seems to believe the only way to win is if open source loses. This is myopic, but the company refuses to get LASIK.

Maybe Microsoft deserves some credit for the move. After all, I'm willing to bet that Bill Hilf and team had to fight hard to get this done. But if there is even the slightest intention of going down the path that Steven lays out, the road to Microsoft patent Hell will indeed be paved with good intentions.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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