Your editor wishes to take no position on whether Oracle's acquisition of
Sun Microsystems should be allowed to proceed by the European Union. Such
a decision certainly involves a number of antitrust considerations which go
beyond the free software community. That said, some of the positions being
taken around this acquisition shine an interesting light on how parts of
our community work.
Fear #1 is that Oracle will kill MySQL, which Oracle is said to see as a threat to
its cash-cow relational database management system. One might respond that
similar fears were expressed after Oracle's acquisitions of Innobase and
Sleepycat Software, but that things have not turned out that way so far.
One might say (as Eben
Moglen has) that keeping MySQL healthy is in Oracle's economic
One might also respond that Oracle could arguably do more damage to MySQL
by breaking off the acquisition and allowing Sun to simply die. But what
is most interesting about this particular concern is the lack of faith it
shows in our community's ability to cope with such an outcome.
MySQL is licensed under GPLv2; it is free software. It can always be
forked; indeed, some groups have already done so. There is nothing Oracle
could do about that. Oracle could stop developing the free version of
MySQL; it could even release future improvements which are available only
on proprietary terms. But all it can take from us is the stream of future
development which (we assume) we would have otherwise had from Sun. We might wish we
had some of those enhancements, but it is another thing altogether to say that
we are entitled to them. Free software generally does not come with a
promise of future enhancements; what it does come with is the freedom to
make those enhancements ourselves.
To say that Oracle would kill MySQL is to say that our community is not
strong enough to continue its development outside of Oracle. That suggests
that MySQL never really was an independent free software project. MySQL
users who believe that should be clear about the position they think they
have put themselves in: in this view, they are users of a proprietary
product which happens to put out its code under the GPL. If this code has
no future without its supporting company, the fact that it is
freely-licensed has relatively little value. But such a view essentially
writes off the community that has built the amazing collection of free
software that we use every day. We are stronger than that.
Another interesting claim is that MySQL's license is the problem.
Richard Stallman signed his name to a letter which expresses this
Many other FLOSS software projects are expected to move to GPLv3,
often automatically due to the common use of the "any later
version" clause. Because the current MySQL license lacks that
clause, it will remain GPLv2 only and it will not be possible to
combine its code with the code of many GPLv3-covered projects in
the future. Given that forking of the MySQL code base will be
particularly dependent on FLOSS community contributions - more so
than on in-company development - the lack of a more flexible
license for MySQL will present considerable barriers to a new
forked development path for MySQL.
The "more flexible license" in this case would be to add the "or any later
version" language to MySQL's GPLv2 license. This statement looks like an
attempt to push a license change onto MySQL, based on the assertion that GPLv2
somehow inhibits community contributions. Your
editor is unaware of any study showing that developers are less willing to
contribute to GPLv2-licensed projects; if such a study exists, it could
certainly benefit from wider exposure.
That is not the only attempt to use this situation to bring out regime
change on the licensing front, though. Consider Monty Widenius's "Help
saving MySQL" post from December 12. He is asking readers to send
messages to the European Commission; suggested text is helpfully provided.
That MySQL should be released under a more permissive license to
ensure that forks can truly compete with Oracle if Oracle is not a
good steward after all.
Back in the days of MySQL AB, Monty and others were happy to put the GPL
onto the MySQL code. It allowed them to release the code freely while
building a business around selling proprietary licenses to companies which
did not want to be bound by the GPL's terms. But the right to engage in
this kind of business was sold to Sun with the company. Now Monty would
like to get it back so that he, too, can sell proprietary versions of the
software. This certainly looks like a bit of a request to have his cake
and eat it too; it is not surprising that some
observers have not been entirely impressed.
What we are really seeing here is the logical outcome of the
corporate-controlled open source project model. Such projects may well
create an external development community, but that community tends to be
weak compared to well-established, independent projects. Additionally, the use of
copyright assignments - common with company-owned projects - puts control
of the entire code base into a single
company's hands. As Eben Moglen noted in his
submitted opinion on the acquisition, the single ownership of the MySQL
code is part of the problem:
The crucial issue is not the license under which MySQL is
distributed, although GPLv3 might be preferable to GPLv2 if one
were writing on a clean slate. Rather, the central issue is an
increase in the copyright diversity of the project, in which
multiple parties have significant code in the main line. This would
be sufficient to prevent anyone having an exclusive right to make
proprietary enhancements or to undertake distribution under
Anybody who has dealt with corporations for any period of time has probably
learned one fundamental lesson: the company that one deals with today may
differ significantly with the company one encounters tomorrow. Even in the
absence of acquisitions, corporations tend to be just one bad quarter away
from a total change of attitude. Being acquired will almost certainly
change a company's approach to a project it owns - especially if that
company is the sole copyright owner for the code in question.
Developers who contribute to a corporate project should be aware that they
are signing their code over to an entity which may take a distinctly
unpleasant turn tomorrow, regardless of how friendly it seems today. Users
of this type of software should be aware that they cannot count on any
promises which do not exist in a signed agreement with the owning company.
The only exception is the license that the existing code is released under:
that will not be going away. For a lot of MySQL users, the GPLv2 license
is a more than sufficient promise for the future. Companies which have
based products on the availability of affordable "GPL exception" licenses
will be on less certain ground - though it is worth noting that Oracle has
to extend those licenses for at least another five years.
Users of PostgreSQL (for example) need never worry about a takeover by Oracle or any
other company; it is an independent project which will never be controlled
by a single organization. Users of MySQL probably need not worry either;
it is a well-established project which should survive a shift to a more
community-oriented mode of development, should such a shift prove
necessary. But the worries about this acquisition - at least, those which
are not motivated by personal agendas - shine a light on what can happen
with software which is controlled by a single organization. Being used as
a political football in a regulatory fight, with all the associated
uncertainties, is just one of the risks involved.
to post comments)