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MS thumps the shared source in academia tub

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Academics from the UK's Lancaster University were this week given the snappily-titled Microsoft Windows Embedded Academic Excellence Award for work on IPV6 implementation involving shared source access to Microsoft code. This and other triumphs for the company's shared source programme were publicised at the Third Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, where "more than 325" (we really wish people wouldn't do this - 326, then?) top researchers gathered.

The Lancaster award relates to work the team has done on IPV6 stack implementations in version 4.1 of Windows CE.NET (which was released shortly after the award was made), and in Windows .NET Server, and this is one of the occasions where Microsoft has licensed back technology developed by academic partners who have shared source access.

The presentations at the summit made a great deal of the relationships Microsoft is building with academia, and some more on the wondrous benefits of shared source access. But it's not necessarily quite as wonderful and positive as a superficial read of the press releases might lead you to believe.

Here's what His Billness himself had to say about licensing: "We did, in one of the relationships where we put out the source code, have some cases where people did work that we then were able to license back in, and as we looked through that we decided that it would be great to give an award to somebody who's done the best work on that..." Bill didn't say anything about the Ts & Cs of the licence, and he didn't say which non-award winning academics have also had their technology licensed back, but one has one's doubts about how lucrative this sort of thing could be, and the way Bill puts it, it's clear there are occasions where Microsoft doesn't take up a licence. But if you've been working with Microsoft source code, then your ability to commercialise anything you produce will inevitably be restricted by your licence from Microsoft, so who else are you going to sell it to? Alleged inability to commercialise derivative products is one of Microsoft's complaints about open source, but you can see the chickens might be a tad closer to home than that.

Nor should one run away with the notion that the Microsoft relationship is absolutely central to the R&D Lancaster is doing. The University is a centre of excellence for IPV6 development, and works with numerous platforms. Microsoft comes somewhat late to this, as you'll note that the Mobile IPv6 Systems Research Lab was set up less than a year ago with funding of £750,000 from Cisco, Orange and, oh yes, Microsoft.

There's nothing wrong with that of course, and Mobile IPv6 certainly sounds much cooler than Windows CE.NET 4.1; we wish Lancaster's boffins nothing but joy of whatever comp Stinger prototypes they have to play with. But as you can see the deal is a lot more complicated than academics simply getting access to the source, building great technology and then making a bundle out of commercialisation. From their point of view it's a lot more to do with scrambling for funding, and using the self-interest of major companies to secure it.

But we'd be interested to hear from anybody with harder information about how much income typically comes to the academic institution from this kind of deal. We'd expect the numbers in the UK and US to be wildy divergent, the US universities being considerably more rapacious. ®

Related links:
MS on its Uni deals
Gates' presentation at the summit
Release on academic collaborations

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