Open Source Institute Blesses Microsoft Licenses

Residents of hell, start checking for icicles: Microsoft has gained Open Source Initiative (OSI) approval for two of its "shared source" licenses, making it an official backer and provider of open-source software.

The Microsoft Public License (MPL) and the Microsoft Reciprocal License (MRL) were formally approved at an Oct. 10 meeting of the OSI board, which announced its decision this week. The decision was driven by an "overwhelming, though not unanimous" consensus of the OSI community that the two Microsoft licenses met the 10 criteria of the OSI's open-source definition, according to OSI President Michael Tiemann.

Microsoft submitted the licenses for OSI approvals and cooperated fully with the vetting and questioning that followed, Tiemann said.

"In spite of recent negative interactions between Microsoft and the open source community, the spirit of the dialog was constructive and we hope that carries forward to a constructive outcome as well," Tiemann wrote on an OSI blog.

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Microsoft has been at odds with open-source enthusiasts recently over its contention that popular open-source projects, including Linux, infringe hundreds of its patents. Reluctant to launch a legal assault to remedy the alleged violations, Microsoft is instead encouraging Linux vendors to strike cross-licensing agreements and patent covenants akin to the one it struck with Novell last year. That deal was so controversial that the Free Software Foundation went back to the drawing board and revised the under-development GNU General Public License (GPL) 3 to prevent future deals in a similar vein.

Despite its patent posturing, Microsoft held out an olive branch to the open-source world in its remarks about the OSI's licensing approval. Its licenses now join 60-some others on the OSI's official list of open-source licenses.

"Microsoft would like to extend its appreciation to members of the Board and OSI community, including Russ Nelson and Michael Tiemann, for their guidance and support throughout the approval process," the company said in a written statement. "This is a significant milestone in the progression of Microsoft's open source strategy and the company's ongoing commitment to participation in the open source community to effectively meet the evolving needs of developers."

The MPL and the MRL are two of the three main custom licenses Microsoft uses for its "shared source" releases. The third, the Microsoft Reference License, is a "look but don't touch" license that does not allow for code modification or redistribution, a violation of a core tenant of the OSI's open-source software definition. Microsoft's recent .Net source-code release was done under the restrictive Microsoft Reference License.

The oddity of avowed open-source foe Microsoft, an ideological opponent of non-commercial software, seeking and gaining OSI's blessing for its licenses raised eyebrows even among OSI's officers. OSI License Approval Chair Russ Nelson noted in a news post on the OSI Web site that "Microsoft is not widely trusted in the Open Source world, and their motives have been called into question during the approval discussions. How can they be attacking Open Source projects on one hand, and seeking not only to use open source methods, but use of the OSI Approved Open Source trademark?"

Nelson's take on the matter is that even Microsoft can't escape the open-source community's gravitational well. While Microsoft remains a firm believer in proprietary software, it has also moved toward greater community involvement in its development process, offering frequent preview releases of under-development tools and applications and encouraging "shared source" development at its Codeplex portal.

"If you are confident that Open Source is the best way to develop software (as we at the Open Source Initiative are), then you can see why Microsoft would both attack Open Source and seek to use it at the same time," Nelson wrote. "It is both their salvation and their enemy."