MS shared source twitches towards liberal licensing

A small twitch, but a twitch, nevertheless...

A new form of Microsoft's shared source licence agreement unearthed by Microsoft Watch suggests that The Beast is at the very least experimenting with forms of words that might work, as opposed to engaging purely in propaganda efforts. The strapline to Mary Jo Foley's report says that the licence "seems to be inching closer - at least in spirit - to the GNU GPL" - this is clearly not true, but we nevertheless think we detect some element of constructiveness.

Microsoft's attitude to open source is schizoid. On the one hand the company's hierarchy categorises it as some kind of communistic peril that will eat all your IP if you touch it, while on the other Microsoft is very jealous, and really wants to figure out how it can similarly benefit from scads of happy developers making Microsoft software better for fun, because it's a mission. There are obviously fatal contradictions in Microsoft trying to set such processes in motion while continuing to keep all the money for itself, but one of the reasons Microsoft got where it is today is that it looked after developers, so aspects of the shared source initiatives represent a serious attempt to learn from and to reinvent successful models from elsewhere.

OK, it's a serious attempt to do this for ultimately devilish ends, but it's not wholly a marketing gag.

The current serious attempt appears in the ASP .Net Starter Kit License, a text of which you'll find here. It's short, and the salient features are that you can modify the software, distribute in source code form and create derivative works without having to check with Microsoft or pay royalties. You do have to tell the recipients you've made changes and when those changes were made, and you have to distribute under the new Microsoft licence, but that's pretty much it. It moves away from the 'look, don't touch' approach that's previously characterised shared source, and gives the impression that developers using this licence model will be doing so to develop software of value, rather than operating largely as unpaid bug-hunters for Redmond.

On its own it's clearly not enough, because one probably experimental wording for one thing certainly doesn't signal a revolution in Microsoft's approach to licensing. But if we sight a few more swallows, then it may take on significance.

Microsoft's terror of open source however remains all too obvious. The licence stresses:

"That you are not allowed to combine or distribute the Software with other software that is licensed under terms that seek to require that the Software (or any intellectual property in it) be provided in source code form, licensed to others to allow the creation or distribution of derivative works, or distributed without charge."

That is, Microsoft's lawyers still insist that you'll catch something nasty if you let open source touch your stuff. But nevertheless there are signs of movement here; Microsoft clearly will never adopt the GPL, but it might - over a long period, and at the expense of some considerable pain - eventually end up devising and employing something more BSD-ish. Could save itself a hell of a lot of time if it just stopped bitching about the open source peril and focussed positively on new models now, we reckon... ®

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