Psych! Microsoft didn't really open-source MS-DOS

Look all you want, but don't think about touching Microsoft's source code for MS-DOS v1.1/v2.0 and Microsoft Word v1.1a

Geeks of a certain age howled with delight at yesterday's news: At long last, out of the blue, Microsoft open-sourced its first significant product, MS-DOS! Cue up your Duran Duran vinyl and party!

Wait, hang on a minute. True, Microsoft this week made the source code to MS-DOS v1.1/v2.0 and Microsoft Word v1.1a available for study at the Computer History Museum. But this does not constitute "open-sourcing" the code; it's under a restrictive look-don't-touch copyright license. The source is available, but not open. As a consequence, there's little you can do apart from stand in awe at Microsoft's genius as you study it. Wow.

I asked Microsoft for comment, but have not yet received an answer. I can only conclude that after all this time, Microsoft's proprietary DNA prevented it from making this ancient code open.

Don't get me wrong, it's certainly a good thing that the source code to such pioneering works is being preserved for future generations. But after all these years, when the software has been out of support for decades, why bother with a restrictive license? Because the copyright license you need to click through to get the code, the Microsoft Research License Agreement, is indeed restrictive.

It allows access "solely for non-commercial research, experimentation, and educational purposes," prohibits redistribution, prohibits use of any part of the code in another program, and even limits citation of the code in written works to 50 lines. The license can be withdrawn for no reason at 30 days' notice. Importantly, it makes no mention of patent rights and reserves all rights not mentioned, so any know-how you gain from reading the source may well be unusable elsewhere due to software patents. This is in no sense whatsoever an open source license, and despite reports you may have heard, Microsoft is not claiming that it is.

But why? Surely the best way for people to truly understand something is to be able to take it apart and build something useful for themselves and others with what they find. We see furthest when we can stand on the shoulders of giants, not just admire their stature from a distance. Can it be that Microsoft is still -- after all these years and with so many gestures suggesting otherwise -- mortally afraid of open source? I've asked for some sort of rationale for the license choice, and if Microsoft responds, I'll let you know.

Maybe the reasons are the usual ones. Providing any sort of liberty along with the code could license patents or limit patent enforcement actions. Microsoft might find its victims customers using a little of the code in their products and gaining patent protection of some sort. Microsoft now relies heavily on monetizing software it didn't actually contribute to, using legacy technology as the licensing lever and patent threats to collect from those who prove reluctant to be monetized. Maybe the risk of those legacy technologies being made freely available is just too costly?

This story, "Psych! Microsoft didn't really open-source MS-DOS," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Recommended
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies