Reactions to Microsoft Office UI licensing

24 November 2006

It's been a few days now since Microsoft's announcement, so I thought I'd present some of the reactions to it. Remember, gentle reader, I am not a lawyer and, if you are considering using our or anyone else's ribbon implementation and are worried about it, you should seek the necessary legal advice from your attorney.

By far the most prevalent reaction has been the "how can they force you to license a look-and-feel?" This is usually accompanied by reference to the controversial Lotus/Borland lawsuit from years gone by, or the Microsoft/Borland settlement, or that Microsoft appropriated the whole Windows look-and-feel from Apple/Xerox PARC/all of the above, and how dare they now try and license look-and-feel. Funnily enough, this was my wife's first reaction too, and she's a lawyer. I always thought the Lotus/Borland suit was about the fact that QuattroPro had to mimic the menu structure of Lotus 1-2-3 exactly otherwise macros wouldn't work, but I freely admit my memory is completely rusty about this.

Anyway, search me, I don't know: Microsoft believe that they have certain legally-enforceable rights (copyrights? patents?) in the Office 2007 UI and they're willing to license those rights for free and make them royalty-free to boot.

Following along the heels of this reaction is the "just ignore the license, they'll never come after you; besides which you'd win in court anyway" one, again with many of the same references. I note that the purveyors of this advice don't actually come out and say something like "that's what I'm going to do when I release SuperRSSFileTextPodcaster next month"; no, they want someone else to take the risk by doing it first while they presumably watch from the sidelines, and, by the way, if you're going to sign the license, you're just a wuss.

Sometimes this is accompanied by the idea that "if everyone ignores the license, Microsoft will be forced to limp home to Redmond, whimpering." To me, this is akin to the "RIAA will never come after all the P2P MP3 music file sharers out there" idea. Good luck with that one; let me know how it goes.

Someone even intimated that we, Developer Express, have sold out in some way, that we've become part of the Borg: "it sounds like you're proud of what you've done to help formulate this license." Wow, that's rough. Given the choice between no legal restrictions and a license, we would have gone for the no legal restrictions every time. But we weren't given that nice black-and-white choice. Instead, we were given the black option and we had to try and make it grayer: we were part of a partner panel that could comment on various drafts of the license as they were produced. Personally, I think the panel did as good a job as they could in getting the Office team and Microsoft Legal to remove or water down restrictions from the license. Is the final document ideal? In a pragmatic sense, given that Microsoft were adamant about having a license, probably yes. All in all, I am pretty impressed with what we managed to achieve: you didn't see some of the drafts.

And not being part of the partner panel wasn't an option: once invited, we thought we could provide better feedback as the license was being written, rather than just passively waiting it out to see the result and then complaining.

A lot of people have been confused about whether they're covered if they buy a ribbon control from an "approved" vendor, one that has already signed the license. The answer to this one is simple: no. Read the FAQ on the licensing site: if you are producing an application that will use some aspect of the Office 2007 UI, you will need to sign the license, whether you buy a ribbon control from someone else (licensed or not) or write one yourself. Contact your attorney if you are in doubt.

Update 1-Dec-2006: Eric Sink makes a very pithy comment on this topic that made me laugh out loud, which considering I feel like death warmed up today is particularly miraculous.

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