And so Microsoft has finally agreed to give the Samba Team the protocol information it needs to allow systems that use Samba to interoperate as completely as possible with Windows Server machines. Based on the information Groklaw has provided about the agreement, it looks like this might be the first of many solutions to Microsoft's cagey Linux patent talk.
Most of us are by now familiar with Microsoft's secretive Linux patent strategy. This agreement is a break from that pattern: instead of setting up something behind closed doors, it's being done out in the open (or at least as far out in the open as possible). Also, instead of it being about a third party licensing specific patents from Microsoft, it's about Microsoft providing information about patents they hold so that other people can avoid violating them in the first place.
One of the results of this whole action has been the formation of a group called the Protocol Freedom Information Foundation, set up specifically to allow open access to documentation of proprietary protocols. It sounds like Samba's work will simply be the first of many such things the PFIF will get documentation on -- again, if not to actually license for use, then to document in enough detail that the open-source community can simply declare off-limits any potentially offending code.
All this did come at a bit of a cost. Not just the one-time licensing payment of 10,000 euros to Microsoft, but the fact that protocol documentation itself has to be held in confidence by the PFIF Samba Team engineers. If someone in the open-source community wants direct access to the documentation, they essentially have to become subcontractors of the PFIF.
That said, Microsoft is obliged to keep the PFIF in the loop as to any changes to said protocols on their part, and -- most important -- the relevant patent numbers are spelled out in public, which makes it that much easier to avoid using them. They aren't secrets anymore.
We weren't able to change the fundamentals of the agreement, so we still didn't have a complete solution to the patent problem, but we did find a way to put quite a strong boundary around which patents we needed to avoid. We also couldn't change the fact that the protocol documentation would need to remain confidential -- the decision by the commission did not force Microsoft to publicly document their protocols, which is of course what we would have preferred, only that Microsoft must license the documentation under reasonable and non-discriminatory terms. Despite these limitations, we were able to make a great deal of progress.
This is a first step, and a significant one. It's a strong sign that Microsoft's patent claims can be put to rest in time, with as little information as possible still held in secret, and not exclusively on Microsoft's own terms. It's also telling that all this was only able to happen after substantial legal pressure and negotiation. Me, I'd like to think Microsoft would take the hint and continue to offer more in this vein on its own, without waiting for others to come to it.