Software License Comparison

Monday, 2006-December-25 at 11:16

Cybersource, an Australian group, has written a comparison of the license terms for the Microsoft XP Professional End User License Agreement (EULA) and the GNU General Public License (GPL).  In light of what we are learning about the ISO-standard OASIS OpenDocument XML-based file formats for office applications (ODF) and the competing ECMA Office Open XML file formats, I thought it would be a good thing to look at how licenses could affect what you can do.

The GPL version 2 is currently being used to license the Linux kernel and the GNU utilities, which together form the core of the various GNU/Linux operating systems (distributions), such as Red Hat & Fedora, Mandriva, Suse, Debian, Ubuntu & Kubuntu & Edubuntu & Xubuntu, Mepis, CentOS, and so on. KOffice, an ODF-compliant office suite, and AbiWord, an ODF-compliant word processor, are also under the GPL, while the OpenOffice.org office suite is under a related license, the Lesser General Public License.

The Windows operating systems, Microsoft's suite of office applications, and most other proprietary software use EULAs, which may differ from company to company, product to product, and version to version.  These licenses typically contain prohibitions against distributing the product, reverse-engineering the product, exporting the product to certain countries, and installing the product on more than a certain number of computers without purchasing additional licenses.  As with "Free Software", proprietary software disclaims any warranties.  In the EULA there is typically language that removes any right to sue for any damages that may come from using the software.  Again, this is not just a Microsoft thing—any software company's products are going to contain such clauses.

The applicability of this license comparison to ODF vs. OOXML is this: ODF allows anyone, anywhere, at any time, to write an application that reads, interprets, translates, writes, or otherwise uses the file formats it specifies.  In addition, there is no penalty for partial compliance.  On the other hand, OOXML comes with a promise not to sue if your product fully conforms to the specification.  What this does not tell you is (1) what happens if you are still in the process of implementing the specification when you release your products [it does tell us that partial implementations are covered, but only to the extent that they follow the spec—does this mean that you can be sued because your implementation is buggy?], (2) what happens if your implementations are complete, but a version or two behind the current specification or based on a not-yet-approved updated version of the specification, and (3) what happens if you conform to the specification, but add your own extensions to make your product's users better able to use the product?

What should you do after you read this?  You should:

  • print a copy and post it near where you work on your computer, so you will think about it whenever you are about to purchase or install software
  • print a copy and record the URI of the PDF to give to the IT manager & staffers where you work
  • take a copy with you to any company discussions about software and licensing and be sure to add these facts to the conversation
  • if you have the authority in your company to do so, call your software vendors for your industry-specific software products and tell them that your company is requiring that their products must work with ODF files at least as well as they work with other office file formats—but be prepared to switch products and vendors if the existing ones refuse to adapt to your needs
  • if you are in a position to specify requirements for software purchases, specify (1) less-restrictive licenses wherever possible and (2) specify that all office software must utilize ODF as one of its native formats
  • if you are a hiring manager, specify that resumes must be submitted in ODF file formats only
  • if you deal with suppliers and bids or other external documents that are sent to you, send documents back if they are not in ODF file formats
  • when your friends ask for an illegal copy of popular office software, instead refer them to the site for OpenOffice.org or another ODF-compliant office product (many of which are zero-cost products) or to Google Docs to enable them to use and create ODF (as well as Microsoft format) documents online for free.  I am told that ThinkFree will also be supporting ODF along with the Microsoft formats that it also supports.

When you really read what the licenses say, it makes you very leery of using any products that have the EULA, with all of its restrictions.

Entry filed under: Computers, Linux, ODF, Software. Tags: .

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