An Interview with Lawrence Rosen Open Source Lawyer - Part II

Posted by tadelste on Jan 1, 2006 8:05 AM EDT; By Herschel Cohen
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Lawrence Rosen publicly backed Microsoft's Open Office XML as sufficiently open to all parties to warrant its use as an open data format. It was because of this stance, I thought LXer readers would be interested to learn upon what basis he came to this decision and to learn if he has any doubts. This is the second part of the interview where he is pursued by a gang of three. It was an interesting battle, see the aftermath and let us know who won. Our hope it will be freedom for all.


Lawrence Rosen, RosenLaw an attorney long associated with open source issues graciously agreed to be interviewed. In the first interview he was quickly responded to a smaller question set. Shortly after its publication he agreed to a second part to his interview.

This is the second part to an interview published earlier this month. Here, however, I will only have two question of my own that are essentially an elaboration of the thrust of my previous questioning I had begun in the first part. Afterwards I am turning the remaining questions to interested readers of LXer to pose the balance of the queries. One of the questioners has had an intimate, close view of the standards battles fought in Massachusetts. The questioning will focus upon the persistent doubts about Microsoft's intentions.

Interview Questions:

LXer: In many respects I wonder why you, with your standing, had not opted toward a more proactive stance prior to your endorsing the Microsoft Open (Office) XML file format. I am well aware that you knew of Microsoft's previous history of dissembling (Questions already posed to you on Groklaw on this very topic.),yet you rewarded them without any attempt to get quid pro quo return on your action. I truly doubt that Microsoft's new promises are well known or even remotely understood by the public at large. Hence, a reversal of course would not really harm them with the buying public. Take one instance, when they were seeking to establish Windows as the default PC OS, they claimed that a Chinese wall stood between their Windows group and their Applications group. Hence, other ISVs were on an equal footing to compete upon this operating environment. Nonetheless, later with a monopoly in hand they reversed their party line to saying: how else could they integrate their application suite. Thus, holding the compete advantage over the competitive ISVs, which were dispensed with.

LXer: So here are my questions:

LXer - HC : Why didn't you take a more aggressive approach?

Rosen: You apparently haven't been following the very aggressive steps I have been taking with Microsoft, Sun, and other companies on this very issue. We have this covenant from Microsoft because many of us in the open source and free software community refused to accept any license that wouldn't allow implementation under free and open source licenses. We succeeded by being aggressive. I'm sorry you didn't see it while the bitter fights were being waged.

LXer: Now presuming Microsoft will revert to their standard form.

LXer - HC : How or is it even possible to punish Microsoft for their expected duplicity?

Rosen: I can't answer such an abstract question. You don't punish anyone for "expected" duplicity. It requires "actual" duplicity to get into court. That's like punishing you because I expect you to commit a crime sometime in the future.

LXer: [For this one question only, was answered later and separately from all the rest]

LXer -HC:No that is not the way I meant to phrase it, keeping my assumption that somehow, some way Microsoft is going to discover its need to reverse its stance. That's my prediction. Hence, when or if this happens what practical recourse is there particularly when some advantage has been gained by Microsoft in losing focus of what a truly open document format should be?

Rosen: The practical recourse will depend on the specifics of what Microsoft actually does. But let's conjecture. Suppose Microsoft decides that this experiment with openness has gone way to far already and it decides to stop working in Ecma or elsewhere toward any standard other than the exact version implemented in its software. (A "damn the rest of the world" attitude might actually overcome Microsoft's reasonable business sense. Crazy things happen from time to time in business, so let's suppose that happens.)

Open source will still, and forever, have the right to implement the standard that does emanate from Ecma. Microsoft's current covenant is irrevocable. This situation might offer a useful opportunity for Open Office, which could then import Word documents and convert them to the more generous ODF format. (I call that a "the hell with Microsoft" result; "we'll take our documents and go play with them elsewhere." Microsoft has no motive to encourage that result.)

More subtly, Microsoft may exercise control over document formats and may act within Ecma to limit the usefulness and comprehensiveness of the XML standards that result. It may decide that control over "conformance" is more important than cooperating with the rest of the world to create useful standards.

Once again: Open source will still, and forever, have the freedom to implement whatever standards do result. We didn't have that before the covenant was issued.

We can't lose by this deal. Only Microsoft loses unless they follow up with fairness and openness in the standards-setting process: If Microsoft screws up and uses the subtle wording in this covenant as a way to exercise control, I'm sure everyone here will be among the first to point that out and milk great public relations value from it.

LXer: Now one of our readers: Hans Kwint has an interesting question.

LXer - Hans Kwint :Microsoft's submission terms state:

"The goal of the (ECMA's) Technical Committee is to produce a formal standard for office productivity applications within the Ecma International standards process which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats."

This basically means, the standard has to comply to the existing MS-formats, and the MS formats don't have to be changed to comply to the new standard. As a result of this, the MS formats don't need to change because of the standardization process, and other ECMA members can't ask for changes in the MS formats. Don't you think this is a strange way to make a new standard?

Rosen: I don't agree with your description of how conformance rules generally apply in standards setting processes. But you're partly right: It is not at all strange to find companies wanting to control conformance to a standard. That's how many standards are developed. I don't like strict "conformance" requirements any more than you do, which is why my public statement expressly encouraged friends of open source to become members of Ecma and other standards bodies and to take steps to prevent unreasonable controls over such standards. But I can assure you Microsoft's conformance requirement is by no means unique. Nor is it quite as bad as some have portrayed it. Microsoft explains what they mean by conformance on their Covenant website; you ought to read it before describing it the way you did.

LXer: Our next reader Sam Hiser, was a former marketing lead with and is familiar with ODF issues. Here are his questions:

LXer - Sam Hiser A::

What are Microsoft's intentions about permitting other (non- Microsoft) developer submissions to the Ecma TC?

Rosen: Good question. Ask them!

LXer - Sam Hiser B::

What about partial implementations of their standard: it looks like they do not permit that (see their language about "full compliance")?

Rosen: Good question. Ask them. Read their FAQ. But note that, whatever the shortcomings of the standard that results, the covenant guarantees that we can implement Microsoft's patents in free and open source software. That's a first for Microsoft!

LXer: I would by inference guess the consensus among the LXer readership that posts comments is generally pessimistic regarding any good intentions being carried through to fruition by those figures in control of the Microsoft machine. Despite your being the optimist in this regard, I think both sides would agree that just the possibility of Microsoft's Open XML becoming some sort of international standard has slowed the Open Document Format's progress. Hence, LXer's final question, assuming the pessimistic view proves to be correct one:

What action would you take to rectify the above mentioned loss of momentum in ODF's adoption?

Rosen: That's silly! There doesn't need to be a loss of momentum. ODF will succeed on its merits.


Larry, all LXers (readers and editors alike) wish to thank you for taking the time to respond to our questions. While I promised to eschew any editorial comment that you had not seen, I am going to break the my own rule very slightly. I am sincere in stating that I hope your view proves to be the correct. Indeed there is an item posted on LXer that comes closer to view than ours .

» Read more about: Story Type: Interview, LXer Features; Groups: Community, IBM, LXer, Microsoft, Sun

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