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Samba gains legal access to Microsoft network file protocols


On Dec. 20, the Samba Group and the Software Freedom Law Center announced a deal with Microsoft that places all of Microsoft’s network protocols needed for programs to work with Windows Server into the hands of the newly formed Protocol Freedom Information Foundation.

The PFIF is a U.S.-based nonprofit corporation. It will make Microsoft’s server network protocol documentation available to open-source developers such as The Samba Group, which creates programs for Windows Server interoperability, and private companies. This information is provided under an NDA (nondisclosure agreement) and developers must agree to the NDA before gaining access to the documentation.

This revolutionary deal came about because of the European Union’s decision that Microsoft had been acting as a monopoly in Europe. After Microsoft failed in its appeal, the software giant not only had to pay a $613 million fine, it also had to open up some of its proprietary protocols to competitors, including open-source ones.

In the deal, the PFIF gets the actual documentation. Samba or other developers can then access the documentation if they agree to the NDA and pay 10,000 euros. There are no other charges or royalty fees. However, the source code free software developers produce from this documentation can be fully open-sourced under the GPLv2 (GNU General Public License) or GPLv3 and will not be covered by the PFIF/Microsoft NDA.

Microsoft is also required to keep this documentation up-to-date. For example, if Microsoft were to change AD (Active Directory) authentication, its PFIF programming documentation would have to be updated within 15 days to reflect these changes. The PFIF Microsoft documentation already contains some protocol information from Microsoft’s still unreleased Server 2008.

The Microsoft/PFIF agreement explicitly does not cover Microsoft patents. It does, however, cover the rest of MLIP (Microsoft Licensed Intellectual Property).

For example, the MLIP includes Microsoft’s CIFS (Common Internet File System), AD, group policies and Microsoft’s proprietary additions to the Kerberos authentication protocols. In short, as Jeremy Allison, co-creator of Samba and a Google developer, said in an interview with Linux-Watch, “It’s not everything we wanted, but it’s close.”

“The lack of patent coverage is a bit disappointing, but to give Microsoft credit, they negotiated in good faith,” Allison said. “There may be a bear trap in there, but with Moglen [Eben Moglen, well-known open-source attorney and director of the SFLC] looking over the contract, we feel pretty safe.”

As for what this means to Samba, he said, “We’ll be able to develop complete drop-in AD servers and the like. Samba-powered Linux, on both the desktop and the server, can fit right into a Windows network.” First, though, before implementing any changes from the documentation into Samba, “we’ll be implementing test suites using the documentation and testing them on real networks to see what the differences are between how things are supposed to work and how they really work. We’ll then give our results to the PFIF,” he said.

Another great thing about the deal, Allison said, is “no more patent FUD. Part of the agreement is that Microsoft must enumerate which patents, if any, are being violated.” As part of the deal, Microsoft must also spell out and keep up to date a list of the patents that Microsoft believes are covered by its own implementations of the MLIP. The contract also makes it clear that while it’s giving groups NDA access to the MLIP, it is not granting any kind of implicit, or explicit, patent licenses to any program resulting from the MLIP information.

Allison also thinks that Samba will be far from the last group to license the documentation. “With this, proprietary companies can also sign up, so I expect Sun [and] companies already working on AD/Samba interoperability [such as Likewise Software], will be paying for access to the documentation.”

Paradoxically, from a Microsoft viewpoint, Allison believes that by Microsoft being forced to open up its documentation, it will be far more likely that Microsoft’s networking protocols will actually become more dominant. His logic is that “now that any business can access the real documentation for what’s already a very popular set of network protocols, I see less time being spent on, for example, further development of the NFS [Network File System] v4.1x family.”

In a statement, Andrew Tridgell, co-creator of Samba and chief technical negotiator with Microsoft, said: “We are very pleased to be able to get access to the technical information necessary to continue to develop Samba as a free software project. Although we were disappointed the decision did not address the issue of patent claims over the protocols, it was a great achievement for the European Commission and for enforcement of antitrust laws in Europe. The agreement allows us to keep Samba up to date with recent changes in Microsoft Windows, and also helps other Free Software projects that need to interoperate with Windows.”

For detailed legal and technical analysis of what PFIF means for developers see, Tridgell’s The PFIF Agreement. The short version is that Microsoft networking services have been opened up, and both open-source and proprietary developers will be able to make better, more interoperable Windows networking programs as a result.

A version of this story first appeared in Linux-Watch.

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