James Vasile, SFLC Legal Counsel, says that the determination wasn't simple -- even though many users probably assumed it was free software safe, as it appears in the OpenOffice.org suite. "The main question was always going to be Sun, whether Sun had done what it needed to do to assure everyone else they could use ODF. Sun didn't have to worry about it when they put out OpenOffice.org."
Vasile says that making the determination was "a significant amount of work. We had to go back and figure out what the source of consternation was, then look at it [the ODF specification] and make sure it really was compatible" with free software licenses such as the GNU General Public License.
The opinion letter, written by SFLC chairman Eben Moglen, explains that concern about the format was a result of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) standardization process for ODF. Because the OASIS process allows for "standards to be licensed under terms potentially at odds with free software licenses," there was concern that the ODF standard may be incompatible with free software licenses.
However, Moglen says that while there's still concern about "technological standards that are incompatible with free software," the ODF standard is not one of them.
How did the SFLC get drawn into the discussion? A few SFLC clients, including the Plone Foundation, and a few organizations not affiliated with the SFLC, turned to the SFLC as the most likely resource to make the determination of whether ODF would be free software compatible. Joel Burton, chair of the Plone board foundation, says that the SFLC "are the most trusted people to give this answer."
Burton says that the Plone project is interested in ODF so that, instead of treating the format as a "binary blob," they want to be able to add support for ODF in the Plone core to be able to extract structural information, show content, and create reference tables from ODF files.
Vasile says that the work that went into researching ODF's licensing status was well worth it. "ODF is a standard for a lot of people to use, so we could answer it [the question of its legal status] for everyone. We saw a general need." He also noted that the SFLC is willing to research this type of question, even for organizations that are not clients of the SFLC, so long as it's of benefit to "the free software world at large."
As for the OASIS process in general, Vasile says that it will be a "case-by-case basis" whether OASIS standards are compatible with free software because OASIS has "several different tracks on which it can produce standards, this one track [used for ODF] is capable of producing standards which can be free, most of the time it's capable of producing standards that can be free.... We're happy OASIS has moved in this direction and is now capable of producing free standards."