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Open Source Props For Microsoft?

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is normally not on the list of companies likely to say anything positive about Microsoft.

Yet that's exactly what happened yesterday, as the Free Software Foundation's European branch (FSFE) congratulated Microsoft for its new shared source licenses.

Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative now only offers three primary licenses, which is down from over 10.

The move is designed to simplify the licenses under which developers can use Shared Source Initiative technology. The reduction in licenses also stands out considering because the open source community has been hotly debating a reduction in open source licenses, which it has been unable to achieve.

The FSF is the home of the GNU-GPL, which is the defining license of the Free and Open Source Software movements and is the license under which the Linux kernel is developed. The FSF is currently working on version three of the GPL.

"Since we so rarely have an opportunity to say something positive about Microsoft, let me begin by congratulating them," Georg Greve, president of the FSFE, said in a statement.

According the FSFE, two of the new shared source licenses may well meet the requirements of the Free Software Definition. It warns, however, that its evaluation was only preliminary and that the other licenses offered by Microsoft are still clearly proprietary "non-free" licenses.

The Free Software Definition is the measure of four freedoms against which licenses are evaluated by the FSF to determine if there are indeed Free Software Licenses.

Both the Community License (Ms-CL) and the Permissive License (Ms-PL) "satisfy the four freedoms that define Free Software," according to a preliminary analysis conducted by the FSFE.

Also, in the FSFE's analysis, the Ms-CL uses a variation of the GNU-GPL's "Copyleft" concept, which requires that all modifications to code remain free under the same terms as the original code.

"Given previous Microsoft statements about the Copyleft approach and in particular the GNU-GPL as 'viral', 'cancerous' and 'communist', seeing Microsoft now publish licenses applying the very same principles seems quite an evolution," the FSFE said in a statement.

Though unable to comment directly about the FSFE's statements, a Microsoft spokesperson did confirm that they are happy with the feedback received thus far.

"Our objective with the new licenses is to make it easier for developers all over the world to get source code in a simple and predictable manner," the spokesperson said. "We are pleased to see such a welcoming response and look forward to seeing the Shared Source Initiative continue to grow."

It's not all exactly water under the bridge as far as the FSFE is concerned, though.

It notes that the publication of license text alone doesn't provide "freedom." It's the actual release of software under the Free Software License that makes it free.

The FSFE warns that the "Shared Source" label doesn't necessarily mean free, as not all of the licenses are free.

The foundation suggests that it would have been preferable, at least from its point of view, if Microsoft had instead decided to use the GNU-GPL and the Lesser GNU-GPL (L)GPL.

"Microsoft has walked a mile and is now standing mere inches from the GNU (L)GPL: We fully understand that Microsoft is first trying to get the nail of its little toe wet in the Free Software community, and we welcome that," the FSFE's Greve stated.

"But in the course of time we would prefer to see Microsoft join the large global community of commercial GNU (L)GPL vendors."