Microsoft To Ban Commercial Open Source from App Store

by Denver Gingerich and Bradley M. Kuhn on July 7, 2022

Microsoft Will Even Prohibit Charitable FOSS Fundraising Through the “Microsoft Store”

A few weeks ago, Microsoft quietly updated its Microsoft [app] Store Policies, adding new policies (which go into effect next week), that include this text:

all pricing … must … [n]ot attempt to profit from open-source or other software that is otherwise generally available for free [meaning, in price, not freedom].

Yesterday, a number of Microsoft Store users discovered this and started asking questions. Quickly, those of us (including our own organization) that provide Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) via the Microsoft Store started asking our own questions too. While Microsoft has acknowledged the ensuing community outrage, they have not clarified their policy. In the meantime, this clause reverses long-standing app store policies, and is already disrupting commerce on their platform (with its tight countdown clock to implementation). In particular, Microsoft now forbids FOSS redistributors from charging any money for nearly all FOSS (i.e., “profit”). Since all (legitimate) FOSS is already available (at least in source code form) somewhere “for free” (as in “free beer”), this term (when enacted) will apply to all FOSS.

For decades, Microsoft spent great effort to scare the commercial software sector with stories of how FOSS (and Linux in particular) were not commercially viable products. Microsoft even once claimed that anyone who developed FOSS under copyleft was against the American Way. Today, there are many developers who make their living creating,supporting, and redistributing FOSS, which they fund (in part) by charging for FOSS on app stores. We in the FOSS community have long disagreed with Microsoft: we have touted that FOSS provides true neutrality regarding commercial and non-commercial activity — both are permitted equally. In short, our community proved Microsoft wrong with regard to the commercial viability and sustainability of FOSS.

Sadly, these days, companies like Microsoft have set up these app stores as gatekeepers of the software industry. The primary way that commercial software distributors reach their customers (or non-profit software distributors reach their donors) is via app stores. Microsoft has closed its iron grasp on the distribution chain of software (again) — to squeeze FOSS from the marketplace. If successful, even app store users will come to believe that the only legitimate FOSS is non-commercial FOSS.

This is first and foremost an affront to all efforts to make a living writing open source software. This is not a merely hypothetical consideration. Already many developers support their FOSS development (legitimately so, at least under the FOSS licenses themselves) through app store deployments that Microsoft recently forbid in their Store. The well-known Krita painting software and the video editing software ShotCut are both sold on Microsoft's app store (and will both soon be in violation of Microsoft's terms). Indeed, our own Inkscape project has unilaterally chosen to only request, rather than require, donations from Microsoft Store users, but this new term forces that decision upon Inkscape permanently. These represent just a few examples of developers and/or redistributors left out in the cold under Microsoft's new terms.

Microsoft counter-argues that this is about curating content for customers and/or limiting FOSS selling to the (mythical) “One True Developer”. But, even a redrafted policy (that Giorgio Sardo (General Manager of Apps at Microsoft) hinted at publicly early today) will mandate only toxic business models for FOSS (such as demo-ware, less-featureful versions available as FOSS, while the full-featured proprietary version is available for a charge). Any truly FOSS system is always “generally available for free” — since the developers do the work in public, and encourage others to remix and rebuild the software into binaries for all sorts of platforms. These are essential rights and freedoms that FOSS licenses give users and businesspeople alike. FOSS was designed specifically to allow both the original developers and downstream redistributors to profit fairly from the act of convenient redistribution (such as on app stores). No company that supports FOSS and its commercial methodologies would propose to curtail these rights and freedoms. So we're left quite suspect of Microsoft's constant claims that they've changed their tune about FOSS. They still oppose it; they've just gotten more crafty about the methods of doing so.

Selling open source software has been a cornerstone of open source's sustainability since its inception. Precisely because you can sell it, open source projects like Linux (which Microsoft claims to love) have been estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Microsoft apparently does not want any FOSS developers to be able to write open source in a sustainable way.

Finally, this is a known pattern of Microsoft's behavior. Rolling out unreasonable and unconscionable policies — only to “magnanimously” retract them weeks or months later — is a strategy that they've used before. Indeed, Microsoft employed this exact tactic when originally creating their app store (then marked under the predecessor brand name, “Windows Marketplace”). Initially, Microsoft banned all copyleft licenses from its app store, and when the obvious outrage came, Microsoft cast themselves as benevolently willing to amend the policy and allow FOSS on the Microsoft Store. Of course, we again (as we did then) immediately call on Microsoft to reverse their new anti-FOSS Microsoft Store Policies and make it explicitly clear in these Policies that selling open source is not only allowed but encouraged.

Nevertheless, we're cognizant that Microsoft probably planned all this, anyway — including the community outrage followed by their usual political theater of feigned magnanimity. It seems this is just Microsoft's latest effort to curtail the forms of FOSS activity that don't directly benefit them. Microsoft may say that they love Open Source, but only so far as they exclusively are the ones who profit from FOSS on their platforms.

Update on 2022-07-08: After we and others pointed out this problem, a Microsoft employee claimed via Twitter that they would “delay enforcement” of their new anti-FOSS regulation. We do hope Microsoft will ultimately rectify the matter, and look forward to the change they intend to enact later. Twitter is a reasonable place to promote such a change once it's made, but an indication of non-enforcement by one executive on their personal account is a suboptimal approach. This is a precarious situation for FOSS projects who currently raise funds on the Microsoft Store; they deserve a definitive answer.

Given the tight timetable (just five days!) until the problematic policy actually does go into effect, we call on Microsoft to officially publish a corrected policy now that addresses this point and move the roll-out date at least two months into the future. (We suggest September 16, 2022.) This will allow FOSS projects to digest the new policy with a reasonable amount of time, and give Microsoft time to receive feedback from the impacted projects and FOSS experts.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, software freedom for everyone

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