License and patent confusion around Office XML formats


There seems to be a number of questions and misunderstandings around the license for the schemas and what people are allowed to do with the files. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t want to try to interpret the license for you, but there is a pretty good FAQ up on the Office XML site. There is also an official site that talks all about the license: http://www.microsoft.com/office/xml/licenseoverview.mspx


Here are a couple interesting parts I pulled out from the FAQ (http://www.microsoft.com/Office/xml/faq.mspx) that might help out a bit:



Q.   If Microsoft obtains a patent for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas, does that in any way affect the royalty-free license?


A.   No, the license is unaffected. Under the patent license for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas, Microsoft offers royalty-free rights both to its issued patents and patents that may be issued in the future.


Q.   The patent license associated with the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas states that “Microsoft may have patents and/or patent applications that are necessary for you to license in order to make, sell, or distribute software programs that read or write files that comply with the Microsoft specifications for the Office Schemas.” What does this statement mean and to what specific patents and/or patent applications does this statement relate?


A.  As an industry leader in the design and development of innovative computer technology, Microsoft has made a significant investment in research and development (R&D). With an annual budget of nearly $7 billion, Microsoft’s R&D commitment is among the highest of the world’s major technology providers, both on an absolute basis and as a percentage of sales. Like other major technology providers, Microsoft routinely applies to governments around the world to obtain patents on our inventions. A patent establishes ownership of an invention, enabling the patent owner to benefit commercially from investments in innovation. A patent is granted if government patent examiners conclude that an invention is a true innovation compared with existing technology. Microsoft has been awarded thousands of United States patents, and our worldwide portfolio continues to grow.


Under the patent license for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas, Microsoft offers royalty-free rights both to its issued patents and patents that may be issued in the future as an outcome of the patent process. To learn more about Microsoft’s intellectual property policy and to find links to government patent offices, we encourage you to learn more about Microsoft Intellectual Property at the Microsoft Web site.


We have chosen a simple and straightforward licensing approach that should appeal to a wide variety of potential licensees because it broadly covers all applicable patents and patent applications instead of only those that are enumerated.


I hope that helps out a bit. This isn’t really a topic that I’m qualified to answer a lot of questions on, but please feel free to post comments. I’ll at least try to dig up the right information.

Comments (16)

  1. qwerty says:

    Can a GPL program read and interpret the XML files?

    Can a GPL program write the XML files?

    What about a BSD program?

    PS These are the two single most widespread software licenses out there today by LOC of software available, so please don’t pretend you don’t know what they are.

  2. qwerty says:

    Can a GPL program read and interpret the XML files?

    Can a GPL program write the XML files?

    What about a BSD program?

    PS These are the two single most widespread software licenses out there today by LOC of software available, so please don’t pretend you don’t know what they are.

  3. BrianJones says:

    qwerty – Like I said, this isn’t really an area I’m qualified to give advice on (no pretending there). I can point to references that I’m aware of. From that FAQ I referenced, they have a response to a more general version of your question, but unfortunately it doesn’t get more specific (I’ll look around some more though):

    Q. Can I distribute a licensed program under an open source software license?

    A. Yes. There are many open source licenses available in the developer community. One useful place to review the various licenses that have been approved by the open source community is at Open Source Initiative.

    The terms and conditions of these licenses differ in material respects. We believe you can distribute your program under many open source software licenses so long as you include the notices described in the licenses for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas. On the other hand, some open source licenses may include specific constraints or restrictions that might preclude development under the Office 2003 XML Reference Schema licenses. You should check with your legal counsel if you have questions about a particular open source software license.

  4. Mike Jones says:

    <blockquote>We believe you can distribute your program under many open source software licenses so long as you include the notices described in the licenses for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas. On the other hand, some open source licenses may include specific constraints or restrictions that might preclude development under the Office 2003 XML Reference Schema licenses. You should check with your legal counsel if you have questions about a particular open source software license.</blockquote>

    Microsoft has lots of high-powered and smart lawyers. They know very well that this license is incompatible with GPL’ed software, like, for example, OpenOffice.

    All this waffling about how it "may be incompatible" is disingenuous: this is a deliberately designed strategy by Microsoft. The market was forcing Microsoft to disclose their formats, but they are deliberately attempting to do it in such a way that interferes with open source development.

    It’s a stupid strategy and it won’t work, but it still shows that Microsoft’s hostility towards open source has not changed at all.

  5. qwerty says:

    This decision obviously has technical underpinnings, but you have to think people are stupid if you expect us to believe you didn’t consider the business implications.

    Who is your number 1 rival? OpenOffice. What license governs their code? GPL, amongst others.

    You are seriously telling me you didn’t think about whether OpenOffice, your *main competitor* could read, interpret and write your file format or not?

  6. BrianJones says:

    qwerty – I’m sorry if it’s hard to believe that I’m being sincere here, but I am. I’ve actually been trying to dig into the specific licenses you mentioned, but it’s not really an area I can effectively interpret (and I also still have a fulltime job working on Office, so it’s going a bit slow).

    From what I can tell, OpenOffice 2.0 is able to open and save XML files from Word2003. We’ll be using that same license for these new formats, so I would guess that OpenOffice could support them too.

  7. Mike Jones says:

    "From what I can tell, OpenOffice 2.0 is able to open and save XML files from Word2003. We’ll be using that same license for these new formats, so I would guess that OpenOffice could support them too."

    The fact that OpenOffice can open Word 2003 XML files does not mean that the license is compatible. OpenOffice developers may have decided to implement the feature without licensing it or they may be using an external and separately licensed Word-to-OOo converter.

    Open source developers will find a way to work around this braindamage, but the fact that Microsoft applied for these patents still tells us about Microsoft’s intentions.

  8. SMC says:

    The license terms DO appear to be incompatible with the GPL, in a fairly sinister way.

    The provision (or at least the one I know about) that is incompatible is actually pretty reasonable in and of itself – the requirement to include the notice about "this may contain MS intellectual property". Not really an onerous requirement…but the GPL is explicitly designed to prevent additional restrictions being imposed downstream (or put in oversimplified non-legal terms (IANAL), it says "you are granted license to use this intellectual property, provided you agree that you will not impose any additional restrictions on anyone else to whom you distribute it or derivative works of it". That includes "you must also include this special advertising clause about MS’ possible intellectual property"…)

    So, now MS can say "hey, we’re not asking for much" – and they’re not, but they’ve carefully chosen to ask for something that violates the "letter" of the GPL-based licenses and makes it incompatible. This tends to blunt my hope that MS is actually deciding they can afford to "play well with others" now like a mature[1] company.

    [1] – as opposed to a "growth" company.

  9. Yorick says:

    Good to see some blogging coming out of Redmond Brian. However I think you’ll have to understand the scepticism that greets this sort of announcement. On the one hand we have this sort of announcement while on the other, we see MS putting up patent applications with extremely broad specs over the XML format which, as has been noted, has been used by OpenOffice for a number of years.

    It is true, as you state, that OOo 2.0 will open MSO files, however that hasn’t been as a result of MS’s generosity. IBM Workplace will use .od* format as will Koffice and I think (Someone may correct me on this) WordPerfect Office will eventually use it as well.

    The question is: Will MSO open and save documents in the OASIS *.od* format as well as it’s own native xml format?

    If it doesn’t could you please explain the rational as most, if not all, other Office suites have this capability.

  10. orcmid says:

    I’ve begun a blow-by-blow analysis of the Microsoft Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas license. I’ve started with the Copyright aspects. I’ll take on the patent license next, but that takes more stage-setting.

    Meanwhile, I’d like to make sure what I have so far, at http://orcmid.com/blog/2005/06/office-xmls-ip-infringement-specter-i.asp is understandable. It’s pretty geeky, but I wanted it to be decipherable by developers at least. Also, if you notice any howlers or parts that simply don’t make sense, let me know. Of course, there are no lawyers here, but I want an explanation that it doesn’t take a lawyer to explain.

    Oh, and a key point. I’m looking at how to make it work with open-source distributions, and where the pinch points may be. I think I have it down for Copyright (where the "no derivative works" clause may be problematic for some kinds of applications). But I think the situation is fairly clear, as is how to follow the rules that keep a different license from contaminating the Microsoft-licensed material (and vice versa).

    As I said on my first look, the patent-license "Necessary Claims" case will be messier.

  11. orcmid says:

    I enjoyed the second Scoble interview with Brian and Jean Paoli that went up on Channel 9 on Friday. The open-source license question was raised in a comment there, so I took another crack at it. I’ve polished that as a further blog entry on how to introduce the royalty-free patent-license notice and be careful to protect creators of derivative works from violating the license (although that is not the bigger risk).

    I agree that the existence of such a defensive license is not compatible with the GPL, and that is also the case for the Sun Microsystems defensive license on the OASIS OpenDocument format.

  12. orcmid says:

    Oops, I hit enter while in the form and it posted. I hate that.

    OK, my latest ramble about this is at http://orcmid.com/blog/2005/06/heavy-lifting-toward-open-formats-in.asp

  13. Wow, there were a ton of great comments on my last post. While there were a large number of them, there…