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Microsoft Says It Will Release Binary Office Formats - Which? -- Updated
Thursday, January 17 2008 @ 01:39 PM EST

There's nothing like an EU Commission investigation to get Microsoft to open up a little, is there?

Today Brian Jones has two announcements, that Microsoft is making binary Office formats (.doc; .xls; .ppt) available under the Open Specification license Promise. 1 You won't have to email them and be evaluated any more. From what I've heard, the way it worked was that only companies and governments could get them before. Of course Jones tells it a different way, as I'll show you. The second announcement is about yet another translator project, an open source "Binary Format-to-ISO/IEC JTC 1 DIS 29500 Translator Project".

Here's the second announcement:

Initiate a Binary Format-to-ISO/IEC JTC 1 DIS 29500 Translator Project on the open source software development web site SourceForge ( ) in collaboration with independent software vendors. The Translator Project will create software tools, plus guidance, showing how a document written using the Binary Formats can be translated to DIS 29500. The Translator will be available under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license, and anyone can use the mapping, submit bugs and feedback, or contribute to the Project. The Translator Project will start on February 15, 2008.

So, the current translators they've been telling us were wonderful... weren't? And Microsoft won't help? Surely they are in the best position to get it right. As Groklaw member PolR [points out in a comment, Jones is explicitly saying the translator project is a response to some ISO JTC1 national bodies that asked for the details of the mapping between OOXML and the binary formats. (doc, xls, ppt etc, not the older formats). So instead of giving the information they already have and used to implement Office 2007, they ask third parties and partners to figure it out and come up with a converter? This is their response? If they wanted to say 'No' why they didn't say so?

I am thinking it'd be wise to download the formats fast as soon as they are available. Microsoft's terms keep changing over the years and they can close off too, once the spotlight from the EU Commission is turned off, I'm guessing. I think Microsoft gave free access to this format documentation back in 1997 and then over the years added more restrictive licensing terms, at one point adding a clause to the license that prevented use by competitor word processors, then closed off public access altogether unless you were a company or a government. Wasn't there a memo by Bill Gates that surfaced in Comes v Microsoft, the Iowa case, where Gates said that giving competitors access to the documentation was "crazy"? I need to search for that. Update: Here it is [PDF], with thanks to Groklaw member emacsuser's better memory.

Here's the Jones story, and note how carefully it is worded to sound like anyone could have this documentation since 2006:

The current form of the documentation has been available since 2006, where anyone could get the documentation by sending an email to Microsoft as described as The documents were available royalty-free under RAND-Z. We already have hundreds of companies, including IBM and SUN, as well as government institutions who have the documents.

Let's do take a look at that instruction page he references. Note the exact wording, and the highlighting is mine:

If you have to extract information from Microsoft Excel workbooks, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, or Microsoft Word documents, you can use several methods. These methods include API programming calls, Office Open XML, XML, RTF, or HTML. If these methods do not address your needs, you may be eligible to participate in a Royalty-Free File Format Program and to receive technical documentation for certain Microsoft Office binary file formats.

You *may* be eligible. It was entirely up to Microsoft.

[Update 2: Sean Daly has found confirmation of my memory on how it worked before, this earlier Jones blog article from 2006, and if you look in the comments section, BradC (Brad Corbin) says this:

MS does give documentation to Partners, Governments, and Institutions that request it, have a good reason, and (I assume) sign an NDA. The fact that they don't release it to *competitors* is a historical business decision, and is certainly their perogative [sic]. This used to be standard practice for software, and it is one of the thing that is definitely changing.

End of update.]

So that's the change, not that Jones points it out. The old terms are here [PDF]. If you look at the Open Specification Promise, you will notice some details:

This promise applies to the identified version of the following specifications. New versions of previously covered specifications will be separately considered for addition to the list. In connection with the specifications listed below, this Promise also applies to the required elements of optional portions of such specifications.

The identified version of Office is Office 2003 XML Schemas and Office Open XML 1.0 - Ecma 376, so I'll assume they haven't updated that page yet, but it's something to check. Which versions will be released? All? Some? I don't see where that is specified. I hate to be a cynic, but fool me once and all that. It's one thing for Microsoft to promise something; it's another to follow through. Naturally, everyone wants to be able to flawlessly render Office 97 and earlier too, as well as Office 2007, just like Microsoft can. On a good day.

And of course the GPL issue remains a problem in my mind with this license:

Q: Is this OSP sub-licensable?

A: There is no need for sublicensing. This promise is directly applicable to you and everyone else who wants to use it. Accordingly, your distributees, customers and vendors can directly take advantage of this same promise, and have the exact same protection that you have.

Q: Is this Promise consistent with open source licensing, namely the GPL? And can anyone implement the specification(s) without any concerns about Microsoft patents?

A: The Open Specification Promise is a simple and clear way to assure that the broadest audience of developers and customers working with commercial or open source software can implement the covered specification(s). We leave it to those implementing these technologies to understand the legal environments in which they operate. This includes people operating in a GPL environment. Because the General Public License (GPL) is not universally interpreted the same way by everyone, we can’t give anyone a legal opinion about how our language relates to the GPL or other OSS licenses, but based on feedback from the open source community we believe that a broad audience of developers can implement the specification(s).

I don't see how this works with the GPL, with the way it's distributed. Sublicensing without having to contact anyone is the rule in GPL stuff. As usual with Microsoft, the devil is in the details.

I guess screenshots might be good, given that the page of instructions Jones referenced is going to change:

And here's a screenshot of the way the old rigmarole began with the email evaluation of your eligibility:

Microsoft says it will make the release of the binary formats by February 15th. I don't see how that gives anyone time to evaluate before the ballot resolution meeting at the end of February.

1 Wait a second. I just noticed it's not a license; it's a promise. So here's my worry: a license can be yours to keep even if Microsoft sells whatever patents it thinks it could sue you with for using its formats. But what about a promise? Couldn't the new owner of the patents say it never promised you anything? That only Microsoft made you that promise? If so, you are so out of luck, my friend. Here's the wording that worries me now:

Microsoft irrevocably promises not to assert any Microsoft Necessary Claims against you for making, using, selling, offering for sale, importing or distributing any implementation to the extent it conforms to a Covered Specification (“Covered Implementation”), subject to the following. This is a personal promise directly from Microsoft to you, and you acknowledge as a condition of benefiting from it that no Microsoft rights are received from suppliers, distributors, or otherwise in connection with this promise. ...To clarify, “Microsoft Necessary Claims” are those claims of Microsoft-owned or Microsoft-controlled patents that are necessary to implement only the required portions of the Covered Specification that are described in detail and not merely referenced in such Specification. “Covered Specifications” are listed below.

So, it's a personal promise from Microsoft to you covering Microsoft-owned or controlled patents. And if they are no longer Microsoft-owned or -controlled?

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