No licence required

Stung by criticism of the licensing terms for its Office Open XML Formats, Microsoft has thought long and hard and then decided to do away with them altogether, issuing instead a ‘covenant not to sue’. It’s also announced that the Office 12 XML file formats will be submitted to ECMA International to be ratified as a standard, and then to ISO. Will these moves be enough to placate the Open Source crowd and other concerned parties such as the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? When the European Union looked into the issue of office document file formats, it welcomed the development of XML formats by both Microsoft and Sun/OpenOffice, but asked for further development by both companies. Among other things, the EU asked Sun/OpenOffice to look into adding support for Custom XML Schemas to its formats and asked Microsoft to submit its formats to a standards body.

No licence required

As a result, Microsoft has now announced that it will ask ECMA International to ratify the Office Open XML Formats as a standard: these are the file formats that will be used in Word, Excel and PowerPoint when Office 12 is released later in 2006. Microsoft has used ECMA before, most notably to ratify the C# language and Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) definitions as part of the .NET Framework. Getting ECMA to ratify the file formats as standards will mean that the standards documents will be published on that organisation’s website for anyone to download and read free of charge, thus reducing the possibility that Microsoft could decide to deny access to the specification at some time in the future by removing the documents from its own website.

While Microsoft still maintains that it ‘may’ have patents that cover the technology used in the Office Open XML Formats, it’s now decided that anyone can use them without having to acknowledge Microsoft’s ‘possible’ intellectual property (IP) in their code. Instead, Microsoft has drafted a covenant not to sue, which basically says that the company won’t sue you for writing software that reads and writes files in the Office Open XML Formats, provided you in turn won’t try to sue it by claiming that you own some IP to do with those formats. This is fundamentally the same agreement Adobe makes with people who want to develop applications that read and write PDF files – you’re allowed the use of its IP in implementing a standard, but not for any other purpose.

Larry Rosen, an acknowledged guru in the field of open-source legal matters, has said he’s ‘delighted’ to hear of Microsoft’s covenant not to sue. He said that this covenant ‘is at least as generous as the patent licences for many other document formats and industry standards’, and that ‘It means both open-source and proprietary software can compete in implementations of these important XML Schemas without the threat of patent litigation from Microsoft.’

These moves also seem to have had the desired effect in Massachusetts. The state government there had set a deadline of 2007 for the conversion of all government computers to use OpenOffice rather than Microsoft Office, but that order has now reportedly been rescinded since Microsoft announced the deal with ECMA. I think the purveyors of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about the licensing of the new file formats should now pipe down – all the serious questions have been answered and what’s left is just flimflam or dogma. The Office Open XML Formats will be ratified as a standard, and anyone can use them to read and write Office documents from any application, with any licensing scheme without fear of being sued. So now over to you Sun/OpenOffice, how are you doing in getting custom XML Schemas into your format? That would certainly please the EU… You can read the Microsoft covenant in full at

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