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To Microsoft, to license means "to restrict"


By Scott Bradner


Reading software licensing agreements is not the most fun thing I can think of doing on a Sunday morning but sometimes a columnist has to forsake fun, even if for a little while.  I was led to spend a chunk of my Sunday doing this because of some press stories about new and bothersome restrictions in the new license for the home editions of Windows Vista.  It turns out that this license is quite well written and only a little strange but does limit purchasers in a couple of annoying ways.


It's been a long time since I read through a Microsoft software license so I do not know when they started using the English language (rather than level-23 legalese) but it sure is a nice thing.  This license ( is very easy to read and to understand but it is rather long -- 14 pages in all. 


I compared the Microsoft Vista license to the Apple license for the latest version of its' operating system (Panther). (  This license is only 3 pages long -- although it is in smaller print  -- and contains fewer restrictions than does the Microsoft one but is no where as clearly written.  I guess the Apple lawyers are not as willing to make it so mortals can understand what they are saying.  One place where the Apple license is very clear is where it says that the Apple software is not intended to be used for controlling nuclear facilities, aircraft systems, life support systems, or anyplace where someone might get hurt if the software failed.


Apple says right up front that the software does not belong to you  -- you only get a license to use it.  It takes Microsoft 5 pages to get around to mentioning that but the result is the same.  Maybe because this is the license for the home editions of Vista but you are limited to running the software on two processors at the same time -- this could become a problem in a few years considering industry directions.  (My new Mac pro that is supposed to be delivered tomorrow has 4 cores, I'm not sure if that is 2 processors or 4.) 


The news coverage on the new license focused on the new single license transfer limitation and the restrictions on using the home versions of Vista in virtual machines.  The transfer restriction says that you can reassign the license to a different device once and only once, so if you replace your computer more than once you will need to buy another copy.   The license says you cannot use Vista Home Basic or Home Premium in a virtual machine. You can use Vista Ultimate in a virtual machine but you cannot play any content protected by Microsoft rights management technologies.  In other words you cannot run Vista on your Mac using Parallels ( unless you have the "Ultimate" version  and then you cannot play music or some games - seems far from "ultimate" to me.


The Microsoft license also says that you may not "work around any technical limitations in the software" -- does that mean you cannot fix security bugs using 3rd party fixes?  The fact that the language is clear does not mean that it all makes sense.


disclaimer: I hope there are classes in clear language at the Harvard Law School but I'm not sure in any case the above review is mine alone