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Microsoft has announced three new licence templates for its Shared Source Initiative that it says should help combat the problem of licence proliferation in the open source developer community.

Jason Matusow, director of the SSI, said Microsoft has tried to write licences that are simple to understand without the assistance of a highly priced lawyer, that make it easier for the developer to know what is and isn't allowed under the licence conditions, and makes it easier for Microsoft developers to get code shared.

He made the announcement at the EuroOSCON conference in Amsterdam. The three licence templates will not retrospectively replace licences already issued, but Matusow says Microsoft will consider changing projects over to one of the new templates on a case by case basis, if developers ask.

The first of the three templates is the Permissive Licence - Ms-PL. As its name suggests, this is the most flexible of the three. Matusow says the only restrictions it places on what you do with the code are that you mustn't use the Microsoft trademark, and that the code must carry proper attribution. "It should be compatible with most open source licences, but I think it would still conflict with the GPL," Matusow said.

Second is the Community licence, Ms-CL. This is a reciprocal licence that Matusow says is probably most similar to the Mozilla public licencing model. "It basically says that if you modify and distribute the code, you must give that file back to the community," Matusow told us. There are also limited versions of both the Ms-PL (Ms-LPL) and the Ms-CL (Ms-LCL) that restrict the use of source code to the Windows environment.

The final template is the Reference Licence, MS-RL, which essentially is a look-but-don't-touch licence for developers working on interoperability issues and so on.

Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation in Europe, says that on first glance, the licences look "quite interesting", adding that more careful analysis is required. "At a first glance, the Ms-PL and Ms-CL both appear to satisfy the four freedoms defining Free Software. In particular the Ms-CL also appears to implement a variation of the Copyleft idea, which was first implemented by the GNU General Public License (GPL)," Greve told The Register.

This, he added, is something of a turnaround for the company, which he says has previously referred to GPL as "viral", "cancerous" and "communist".

He went on to stress that while publishing well crafted licences is one thing, making software freely available is quite another: "It would have been preferable if Microsoft had made the decision to use the GNU General Public License (GPL) and Lesser General Public License (LGPL) for its Shared Source program."

Professor Larry "Creative Commons" Lessig and Ronald Mann, Law Professor at the University of Texas have also given the licences the thumbs up.

Lessig welcomed the move because it reduced the number of licences floating around the OS community, arguing that the proliferation of licences is the single most important problem in the world of free and open source licensing, because many are incompatible.

You can read the new licence templates for yourself here. ®

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