November 26, 2005  ·  Lessig

There’s been lots of interesting commentary about Microsoft’s recent decision to submit its Office Document Formats to ECMA for “open standardization.” That’s good news, depending, of course, on the details.

But this is even better news: Microsoft has also promised that “it will not seek to enforce any of its patent claims necessary to conform to the technical specifications for the Microsoft Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas.”

This shows some hope to the complex of issues around patents affecting software in the land of Microsoft. Even opponents of software and business method patents will advise companies to secure them — given others can as well. But behavior like this goes a long way to neutralizing the negative effect of such patents. No license. No agreement. Just an unequivocal promise — at least with respect to those who don’t sue Microsoft.

  • Marcelo Magallon

    I can see why people applaud Microsoft’s covenant. But note the wording: “Microsoft irrevocably covenants that it will not seek to enforce any of its patent claims necessary to conform to the technical specifications for the Microsoft Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas.” I read that as “if you are implemeting our ‘standard’, it’s fine, but if you are using the same ideas to implement something else, you are doomed.”

  • Ian Gregory

    Microsoft’s decision to submit it’s proprietory alternative to ODF for consideration as an international standard seems like a cynical move designed purely to hurt ODF. After such a huge effort by so many people and organisations to come up with a common open standard for document exchange, how can it benefit anyone to have a second incompatible standard for doing the same thing. Sort of like having two different standard lengths both called a metre.

  • nari lee

    I agree with the comments above. This just sounds like a publicity stunt to me. It seems to be very limited statement, only to conform to their “standard”. Also what are the necessary patent claims as opposed to claims that happened to be in their patents but not necessary to conform to their XML reference?

  • Peter Rock

    Warning: The following has nothing to do with Lawrence Lessig’s post.

    I just want to say how great this blog is and how great Larry is for allowing dialog. I just had an experience over at William Dembski’s Intelligent Design blog that disappointed me. I was censored.

    I didn’t insult anyone. I didn’t use any foul language. I just questioned, opined, and posted a link to the latest entry on my blog (which, although directly challenges both Dembski’s ID and Atheism, contains nothing offensive). Apparently, William didn’t approve and deleted my entry 4 times(!) until I gave up trying to propose another view – another take on things. I went through all the trouble of getting an account and handing over my email address to him as well. What a rip-off.

    I mean, I understand when the host removes spam, but could you imagine if Larry shut down Pissed Off Authors or the 3 blind mice? 99% of the time those rodents don’t agree with him, but their presence makes this blog that much better. Their often challenging perspectives get my brain working and I can’t help but appreciate that. Are we not here to learn? To question? To find out the truth of the matter?

    I know. Dembski has every right to censor me. It’s his blog. I’m not crying foul. I’m just venting my glee that there are bloggers like Lessig out there who let the chips fall where they may. Bloggers who have faith that reasoned views will rise above the rest without any need to suppress voices who may disagree with him.

    So, after making a short story long,

    thanks Larry.

  • Rob Myers

    Microsoft are now working on “Open Fart”. I hope you will all join me in telling everyone to breathe deep. Spread the word! Microsoft are open!

    Meanwhile, PJ looks behind the curtain:

    Reactions to MS’s “Glimmer of Openness” & a Little Water Under that Bridge

  • three blind mice

    But behavior like this goes a long way to neutralizing the negative effect of such patents.

    quite the opposite professor. what MSFT are doing is using their patents aggressively to support their business model.

    by offering a non-asseration covenant against fully compliant implementations of Office XML Schema, MSFT is encouraging the adoption of Office XML as a de facto standard. think adobe’s pdf. this is a good thing. this will discourage forking and create a standard for document exchange that can become widely available.

    like adobe does with acrobat, MSFT will make their money from proprietary advantages offered by the Office suite.

    do a search of MSFTs portfolio and you will that MSFT has hundreds of patents on various aspects of XML. the patents essential to the MSFT Office XML Schema are a portion of the XML patents that MSFT has.

    the license offered is for those patents essential for compliance with the Office XML Schema. that’s it. and there’s the bait.

    this generous covenant will allow Open Office programs to comply with the MS standard, but it will also constrain Open Office to second-rate performance. Open Source programs that attempt to provide all of the features of MS Office will run afoul of MSFT’s other XML patents.

    the goal is for the Office XML Schema to become a de facto standard and for MSFT Office to be the best application software that uses XML.

    it’s a straightforward, and not terribly clever, patent strategy there’s nothing wrong with it. this is how the game is played. it is a challenge to the Open Source community to innovate around MSFTs patents – or get out of the way.

  • falconer

    Peter Rock:
    Some sites have policies against a new poster linking to other sites on their first few posts.
    I am not sure if the site to which you had posted had similar sorts of arbitrary rules. I also don’t know what else you considered in decerning the reasons this other website censored you.


    I am not familiar with the ins and outs of the schema, but if Microsoft offers the option to represent every work capable of being produced by office in this new schema, then the schema must fully describe the stucture of the work. Future additions by Microsoft to the schema would also have to covered under the same rules as the original schema.

    Of interest is how well the schema is described and how ambiguously or arbitrarily implemented it can be. For instance, other vendors may adequately parse, each according to their own methods, documents saved in “version 1″ of the schema so that documents saved in one program look identical when opened another. But microsoft may release additions to the schema, completely back-compatible with the logic of the of the original schema, but which take particular advantage of the arbitrary way other vendors have implemented “version 1″. For instance a document saved in version2 of the schema might look identical on a microsoft interpreter of version 1 (or version2), but would look crappy in a competitor’s interpreter of version1. Quirks in interpretation.

    Because there are always ambiguities in interpretation, and microsoft would completely control the specification, these above concerns are not trivial (particularly, since microsoft is well known for doing shenanigans of this sort in this very field). In a specification where all interested parties come together to agree upon it, there is less opportunity to try to change the spec in arbitrary or capricious ways, attempting to gain marketshare by making your rivals’ products look dumb, rather than ensuring maximum back-compatibility and usability in older platforms.

    Of course rivals to microsoft could re-work their products so that their products’ behaviour matches that of microsoft’s, but microsoft would always have a head start. More importantly, other producers would have to upgrade their “version 1″ interpreters to read documents produced by “version 2″ agents, while microsoft would not.

  • Peter Rock

    Thanks falconer for your input. I tried again without any links. My message is still not posted. Unfortunately, William Dembski doesn’t provide an easy way to contact him. Perhaps I’m not being censored – I suppose I could be jumping to a conclusion. Apparently, I may never know.

    People seem caught in two extremes – debating the existence or non-existence of god. To me, that question seems off-kilter. I want to know where Dembski’s “Intelligent Design” stands not on the premise of atheism but on the possibility that the designer IS the designed. But I guess he’s not interested in that possibility and seems intent on sticking to his traditionally christian notion of god “out there” – manufacturing a “science” to try and prove this assumed separation.

    Anyway, I know this is not the place for such things. Let’s get back to copyright and patents. :)

  • Peter Rock

    Well that explains it. Someone else on Dembski’s blog apparently isn’t happy. This poster sounds like a 3-blind mice character! :)

    I didn’t realize the haughtiness I was dealing with until I read his comment policies here and here. Apparently, if you don’t agree with him or “bore” him, you are not providing “productive” comments.

    Again Larry, thanks for giving me the freedom to bore you and your readers. :)

  • Rob Myers

    it’s a straightforward, and not terribly clever, patent strategy there’s nothing wrong with it. this is how the game is played. it is a challenge to the Open Source community to innovate around MSFTs patents – or get out of the way.

    Yup. Heed the mice. It’s a ploy in Microsoft’s immediate struggle against FOSS, not part of a long-term slide towards Freedom. The covenant only covers Microsoft’s old format, not the upcoming one.

    Further debunking:

    Professor Lessig is a board member of the Free Software Foundation IIRC. Microsoft’s actions here are not helping Free Software.

  • Branko Collin

    These formats are apparently licensing landmines. Nobody has yet been able to answer my simple question as to how a company like Microsoft can give out licenses for a protocol in the first place.