WASHINGTON - U.S. antitrust enforcers say they may need a court order to stop Microsoft Corp. from overcharging for software that enables rival programs to communicate with Windows operating systems for computer networks.
In a report yesterday to the federal judge overseeing Microsoft's compliance with the settlement of the government's antitrust case, the Justice Department and 18 states noted "numerous concerns" about licenses Microsoft wants companies to sign before using the software.
The accord approved last year requires Microsoft to license on "reasonable and non-discriminatory terms" the software code to enable non-Microsoft programs to communicate with Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000, which power large corporate computer networks. It is intended to help rivals compete with Microsoft, the world's largest software maker.
Antitrust enforcers said "further steps may need to be taken, either pursuant to agreement or order of the court, to account for Microsoft's delayed implementation" of the licenses. The company has not disclosed how much it's charging for the licenses.
The government negotiated the settlement in 2001 after an appeals court found that Microsoft illegally protected its Windows monopoly for personal computer operating software. It requires the company to give computer makers the freedom to promote software that competes with its own products.
The government report noted that Microsoft was required to start licensing the software code three months after U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly approved the agreement in November.
The government said that only four companies have taken advantage of the licensing provisions, which Kollar-Kotelly called "the most forward-looking provision" of the settlement because it was aimed at "unfettering the market and restoring competition."
Antitrust enforcers said they continue to discuss changes in the licensing terms and royalties with Microsoft. "Although progress has been made, plaintiffs remain concerned about the royalty structure and rates proposed by Microsoft," they said in a court filing.
Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said the company is implementing "a complex and unprecedented program" of software licenses.
"When taking into account the considerable resources we dedicated to developing these protocols, we believe the terms are reasonable," he said. Still, he added, the company is "open to feedback" and has made changes in the licensing and "will consider making additional adjustments."
The four companies licensing Microsoft communications software are EMC Corp., Network Appliance Inc., VeriSign Inc. and Starbak Communications Inc., the government said.
Microsoft has made some changes in license terms and "completely reworked" them "to eliminate unnecessary complexity," the government said.
Kollar-Kotelly has set a hearing for July 24 in Washington to review Microsoft's compliance.
Microsoft's shares fell 43 cents to close at $26.25 yesterday on the Nasdaq stock market.