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Microsoft picks fight with Slashdot

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Reducing security risks from open source software

Despite Microsoft's request to Slashdot owner and ISP Andover.net to remove postings containing technical details of its proprietary extensions to Kerberos, the open source authentication standard, they're still up there.

A week ago, Microsoft made the details to the PAC extensions (privilege attribute certificate) public but only in a form which required users to consent to an End-User Licensing Agreement (EULA), limiting disclosure. Microsoft is unique in the industry in not releasing the source code to its Kerberos implementations.

At the time of writing, Slashdot had not taken down the offending postings, and had published the Microsoft email notification – "Notice of Copyright Infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act" - which helpfully lists exactly where to find the postings.

Microsoft's email cites four posts containing its specification, and, incredibly, seven more containing links to further information, including advice on how to bypass the EULA.

The PAC extension clearly is copyright, and the draconian DMCA makes the distributor liable for the copyright violation, and its resultant harm to the copyright holder.

Trade secrets

No matter how ugly it looks, Microsoft is within its legal rights to make the request. Whether the case gets much further is extremely doubtful given the lack of firm precedent in this field. Can Microsoft protect trade secrets that are freely "published", albeit protected via a EULA? Is the EULA a strong enough mule to carry such proections? Doesn't the precedent of previous, reverse engineered "trade secrets" kind of blunt Microsoft's charge? Or will the DMCA prove extensive enough for a successful prosecution? More, much more of this tomorrow, dear reader.

But for now, let's not forget how pivotal these protocols are to the Microsoft business model. When a protocol is successfully commoditised the case for premium prices disappears – as almost anything else will do the job – unless of course the proprietary bits, or proprietary packaging to be more accurate, can offer some drastic ease of use savings. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won't, and forever the packager, Microsoft has felt some pain here.

It's seen plenty of its servers bounced out of shops where they’ve been deployed, pure and simply, as file and printer servers. Samba, which has successfully reverse engineered the Microsoft SMB file and print protocol for some years, has provided a seamless drop-in replacement in many cases. It's as important to the likes of Sun Microsystems, which through its Cascades projects seeks to make commodity NT servers redundant, as it is the Linux/BSD community.

The threat Microsoft perceives isn't from Kerberos itself, but from the progress achieved by the Samba developers. The latest goal for Samba's developers is to replace Windows servers as Primary Domain Controllers capable of serving Windows 2000 clients. Equally, Microsoft wants to make its Windows servers compulsory in a Kerberos environment where Windows 2000 clients are involved, and it sees an opportunity to leverage that client base

"This isn't intellectual property, it's a land grab on a previously open spec," is how Samba co-lead Jeremy Allison characterised it in a posting last week.

Quite why Microsoft chose to pick a fight with a well-entrenched Unix industry standard using legal intimidation – now of all times – is puzzling indeed.

Register footnote

Threats such as this could become irrelevant if one of the less-remarked upon behavioural remedy requests made by the DoJ and the nineteen states gets accepted by Judge Jackson. The request calls for Microsoft to establish an independent Compliance Center, giving third parties (and that's loose knit organisations as well as more conventional ISVs) access to the source code.

Remember, folks, the behavioural remedies take effect 30 days after the Final Judgement (expected in July at the latest), and are in force irrespective of the proposed structural remedy to break up the company into two. ®

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