Several years after the European Commission ruled in an antitrust suit in 2004 that Microsoft had to provide protocol information to its competitors, the Redmond, Wash., software giant has inked an agreement with a team behind the open source project Samba that will let them in on Microsoft’s secret protocols.
The Samba team develops free and open source tools that provide seamless file and print services between Linux servers and Windows-based clients. Accomplishing this task is particularly difficult when Microsoft changes its file and print services protocols and provides no documentation, but the EU aimed to force Microsoft to provide access, which led to the agreement at hand.
The agreement is somewhat complicated. First, even though it’s geared to help the Samba development team, the agreement is actually with the Protocol Freedom Information Foundation (PFIF), which is a nonprofit organization set up to be the legal middleman between Microsoft and Samba developers.
“The agreement is, at its heart, a non-disclosure agreement,” noted Samba Team leader Andrew Tridgell, who also negotiated for much of the agreement. “The PFIF is agreeing not to disclose certain confidential information, while Microsoft is agreeing to provide technical documentation which can be used to help build an implementation of the WSPP protocols.”
Obviously, having access to the protocols should make it easier for Samba developers to create seamless solutions that work well with Microsoft solutions, which is a boon for organizations running Linux and Microsoft products at the same time. While this benefit is huge, an even bigger one may be Microsoft’s patent details that come with the agreement.
Microsoft will provide a list of related patents, and while the PFIF won’t get to license those patents, the organization and the Samba developers working through it will be able to avoid them as they write code. This means that downstream Samba users can be assured that their Samba usage won’t run afoul of Microsoft’s saber-rattling patent-lawsuit threats.
No Notice, No Foul
“The Samba Team has for a long time put a lot of effort into ensuring that we don’t infringe any patents. I have spent countless hours talking to patent attorneys, and analyzing patents to ensure we don’t infringe,” Tridgell noted. “The problem is that the number of patents we have to analyze is unbounded. We have generally found it isn’t too much of a problem to avoid infringement of patents that we know about, but what about patents that we don’t know about?”
Another handy point is the Microsoft patents that Microsoft doesn’t name for the PFIF — if they aren’t on the list and the Samba team, for example, infringes on them while producing code connected to the protocols in the agreement, everyone using the code is protected from a Microsoft lawsuit.
Of course, Microsoft can create new patents. “The idea is that Microsoft can get new patents into the list of patents we need to be careful of, but only if they give the PFIF plenty of warning,” Tridgell noted.
“[The Microsoft-PFIF deal] is very important,” Mark Radcliffe, an attorney with DLA Piper as well as general counsel for the Open Source Initiative, told LinuxInsider.
“The scope of the EU Agreement with MS was much less useful than many people thought. This agreement seems to be beyond it and be actually useful, although the devil is in the details,” he added, noting that he hasn’t read the specific agreement.