Microsoft licensing denounced by open-source proponents

Legal tussle on tap as court reviews the success of MCPP

Five years after being pegged a monopolist, Microsoft is coming under scrutiny for efforts to license its proprietary technology in accordance with antitrust legal demands from U.S. and European regulators.

The Microsoft Communications Protocol Program (MCPP) was envisioned as a way to encourage competition and promote interoperability between Microsoft's products and Unix, Linux and open source applications. Whether the licensing program has worked as planned is a topic of hot debate, and the U.S. District Court in Washington plans to take up the subject for review on Sept 11.

Microsoft is calling the licensing program a success, with more than 40 companies, most undisclosed, licensing more than 200 Microsoft protocols for server, storage and security services. But six states and many open source advocates are deeming the MCPP licensing effort a failure in terms of promoting competition and interoperability.

"MCPP licenses are simply not a viable option for suppliers of open source products -- the principal alternative to Microsoft in the server market," states California's assistant attorney general Kathleen Foote in an Aug. 30 legal filing the state made on behalf of California and five other states calling themselves the California Group. "These companies cannot utilize MCPP licenses because of their royalty provisions and other restrictions on the use of intellectual property."

That view is echoed by open source advocate Jeremy Allison, lead software developer at SAMBA, the open source project that provides freely available code used for interoperability between Linux/Unix servers and Windows-based clients.

"We read the license," says Allison about MCPP. "It's impossible to release open source implementations of the product. You have to keep it secret. This defeats the whole idea of open source."

Allison says MCCP simply "gives Microsoft a good control point" and "the licensing is a failure in terms of what regulators want it to do."

For its part, Microsoft says SAMBA and others have reverse-engineered some Microsoft code rather than join the program(Allison calls it network analysis, not reverse engineering).

"They have chosen not to participate," says Craig Shanks, general manager of Microsoft's protocol program, about SAMBA. "The reverse engineering route is up to them. That's a decision vendors might make."

Still, Microsoft hopes SAMBA and other open source advocates will join MCPP. One goal of the program, in which licensed developers gain access to Microsoft source code, is to slow down the reverse-engineering trend.

Meanwhile, Microsoft last December started augmenting MCPP, which began in 2003, with so-called "plugfests" that invite licensees to its Redmond campus and give them the opportunity to work one-on-one in the Microsoft Interoperability Lab to test Microsoft protocols.

However, only 10 companies have shown up, according to Darryl Welch, Microsoft program manger. The next plugfest coming up in mid-September will focus on the security topics of authentication and certification services. Microsoft's MCPP sometimes offers access to upcoming as well as established technologies, Welch points out, and is a way to properly implement Microsoft protocols related to security and network-attached storage.

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Ellen Messmer

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