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Monday, 25 May 2009 05:45

The elusive, royalty-free patent licence for Mono

How difficult or easy is it to obtain one of the much-touted "royalty-free, reasonable and non-discriminatory" licences for Microsoft patents that are part of a technology like Mono?

Judging by the frequency with which references are made to such licences by those who back Novell vice-president Miguel de Icaza's bid to create an open source clone of Microsoft's .NET development environment, it's surprising that no-one has ever ventured to test this claim.

The idea of trying to find out what was involved arose after reading a nearly nine-month old, well-written post defending the use of Mono and mocking its detractors. The author, Jo Shields, works for Oxford University.

As Shields made mention of this kind of licence in his post - to quote: "Related parties have pointed out with relative frequency that those licenses are available under a 'royalty free, reasonable & non discriminatory' license (sic), but free patent protection isn’t remotely good enough, is it?" - the very first question asked by a reader in the forums provided was how one could obtain such a licence for Mono.

Shields appears to have asked de Icaza about this on an IRC channel and posted the great man's responses which were as given below:

[miguel_] Direct, anyone can request it from ECMA
[miguel_] Well, you can request the docs from ECMA
[miguel_] The Gnome Foundation is a member, and whoever is the member can request the docs
[miguel_] It might be possible also for the public to get them but I dont know what you have to do

And Shields added: "I asked, that was the answer. Make of it what you will."

It looks like the man who created Mono himself is not sure how one obtains this "royalty-free, reasonable and non-discriminatory" licence" to avoid violating Microsoft patents in the .NET specification. Strange, one doesn't hear this point being highlighted too often.

That, however, doesn't stop de Icaza from pushing Mono as the next best thing after sliced bread. Or maybe tortillas.

Everyone, but everyone, who defends Mono, claims that since the .NET standards have been submitted to ECMA, an industry association, it means that it's fine to go ahead and use Mono - aren't we all abiding by a published standard when we do?

But when you ask ECMA, they tell you a different story.


I wrote to Dr Istvan Sebestyn, the secretary-general of the organisation, on April 25, asking: "I understand that the terms of the licences to the patents which Microsoft holds on the .NET development platform are available from your organisation. I also understand that the terms of use of these patents are royalty-free, reasonable and non-discriminatory. I would be grateful if you could send me the details of the terms of the licence."

He replied two days later, pointing out, "Ecma does not have anything to do with possible licensing of .NET. But Microsoft is one of our members, so I have asked them whom to contact there – if anything is needed, what I just do not know."

Dr Sebestyn added: "My contact at Microsoft said that you should contact Peggy Moloney there, who would be able to help you."

I wrote to Ms Moloney on April 28, asking for the same information: "I understand that the terms of the licences to the patents which Microsoft holds on the .NET development platform permit people to obtain a royalty-free, reasonable and non-discriminatory licence to use them. I would be grateful if you let me know exactly how one obtains such a licence."

I also asked her about the variance in the terms for the licensing of Moonlight, a clone of Microsoft's Silverlight, using which the company hopes to capture the market that is dominated by Adobe's Flash. De Icaza is behind this project as well.

My query ran thus: "I'm also seeking to find out why there is some variance in the terms under which one can use Moonlight - Novell and Microsoft appear to say different things.

"Novell says that Moonlight 'will be available for Linux users on any distribution'.

"However, Microsoft says clearly that only Novell can supply Moonlight to end-users: "Microsoft, on behalf of itself and its Subsidiaries, hereby covenants not to sue Downstream Recipients of Novell and its Subsidiaries for infringement under Necessary Claims of Microsoft on account of such Downstream Recipients’ use of Moonlight Implementations to the extent originally provided by Novell during the Term and, if applicable, the Extension or Post-Extension Period, but only to the extent such Moonlight Implementations are used to provide Plug-In Functionality. The foregoing covenants shall survive termination of the Agreement, but only as to specific copies of such Moonlight Implementations distributed during the Term, and if applicable, the Extension or Post-Extension Period."

There's a been a deafening silence since then. There the matter stands after nearly a month. You would think that's a decent period for anyone to think things through and respond - if the intention of doing so exists.

To me, it looks this licence is as real as the unicorn. Or maybe Santa Claus. I think Mono fans need to think of a fresh defence when people talk about the dangers of patent suits arising over this technology. The licence talk has worn more than a little thin.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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