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Sun, Microsoft Clause Singles Out Openoffice

Sun Microsystems may have saved itself from years of costly litigation when it settled with Microsoft over their long-running Java dispute, but a clause in the landmark deal has open source supporters parsing its potential impact.

The provision allows Microsoft to "sue or otherwise seek recovery from an authorized licensee of OpenOffice" that was in use prior to April 2. In this way, Microsoft could in theory file suit if it finds pieces of OpenOffice that it contends infringe on its Microsoft Office patents.

Under their agreement, Sun must notify Microsoft if a claim surfaces and must let Microsoft take control and responsibility for fighting the charges in court. Sun must also help Microsoft defend its case against a potential OpenOffice licensee. For its troubles, Microsoft will reimburse Sun an undisclosed sum for certain damages, according to the filing.

With news of a "Stand-Still" agreement, part of Sun's quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission this week, posts on popular open source forum Slashdot were piling up over the ramifications for Openoffice.org.

"I said this a while ago when Microsoft and Sun announced their happy settlement: the goal is to squash OOo," one poster wrote. "SCO and Lindows demonstrated that lawsuits are not just about recovering damages: the mere threat of litigation is enough to kill a product."

Still others consider the clause a smart move. "I'm not a fan of software patents, but I think this really does make sense from a legal viewpoint, and is not necessarily an underhanded legal move by Microsoft," another poster commented.

In response to a request for comment, Microsoft said: This agreement is a component of a larger arrangement with Sun that constituted the April 12 settlement between Microsoft and Sun. As is common when two large patent holders structure a patent agreement covering many products, the Sun/Microsoft agreement is complex. We believe that the patent and technology agreements provide the companies with the framework to work collaboratively in the future to drive innovation for our customers.

A spokesperson for Sun said the clause is perfectly straight forward and above board.

"Under the Limited Patent Covenant and Stand-still agreement, customers using any of Sun's commercial products, including StarOffice software, receive the benefit of patent protection," Sun spokesperson May Goh Petry told internetnews.com. "This is standard practice for any commercial company. Open source products typically do not receive patent protection through such partnerships.

"Sun is strongly committed to OpenOffice.org and the settlement with Microsoft doesn't undermine its continued commitment to the community. Open source software is conventionally provided without warranty and liability coverage, and OpenOffice.org is no different. OpenOffice.org is not disadvantaged by the settlement. In fact, OpenOffice.org users may eventually benefit superior interoperability with Microsoft Office."

OpenOffice.org Editor Louis Suarez-Potts also told the Seattle Post Intelligencer that the issue was moot since the deal has been out for some time.

It was Sun that started the OpenOffice community in 2000 as a way to battle Microsoft at its own desktop game. Both Sun's StarOffice and its open source counterpart, OpenOffice.org, are emerging as leading alternatives to Microsoft Office on the Windows platform.

Available through many means, including more than 60 systems OEMs, more than 35 million copies of StarOffice and OpenOffice have been distributed, making it the leading office productivity suite running on multiple platforms (Solaris, Linux, Windows, Mac OS X). The recent updates to GNOME and KDE are also expected to help fuel development.

The OpenOffice software suite offers similar word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. The platform will run on both *nix and Window environments and is duel licensed under the LGPL (GNU Lesser General Public License) and SISSL (Sun Industry Standards Source License).

Governments around the world appear to be taking an interest in Openoffice.org and open source software in general. As previously reported, the city of Austin, Texas recently adopted openoffice.org software and governments in Germany, France, Brazil and China to name of few have stated interest in going the open source route as well. In the U.K Scottish Public Libraries have made Openoffice.org software available for lending to the public.

At its JavaOne show this summer, Sun CEO Scott McNealy commented that Microsoft and Sun are working on making StarOffice "even more interoperable" with Microsoft Office. Other important goals include improving interoperability between the Java Desktop System and Windows, improving interoperability between Solaris and Windows servers, and bringing the company's respective Web services architectures, .NET and Java Web Services, into closer alignment.