Stallman’s stall

CNET (read it) links to this very interesting letter addressed to the European Competition Commission which has Richard Stallman among its co-signatories. Oracle’s acquisition of Sun will give it, among other things, control over MySQL. And the sole purpose of the letter is to keep that from happening. The irony is that the “problem” has probably been created because of the GPL, at least that’s what Stallman seems to thinks. The interesting bit-

Defenders of the Oracle acquisition of its competitor naively say Oracle cannot harm MySQL, because a free version of the software is available to anyone under GNU GPL version 2.0, and if Oracle is not a good host for the GPL version of the code, future development will be taken up by other businesses and individual programmers, who could freely and easily “fork” the GPL’d code into a new platform. This defense fails for the reasons that follow.

MySQL uses the parallel licensing approach to generate revenue to continue the FLOSS development of the software. If Oracle acquired MySQL, it would then be the only entity able to release the code other than under the GPL. Oracle would not be obligated to diligently sell or reasonably price the MySQL commercial licenses. More importantly, Oracle is under no obligation to use the revenues from these licenses to advance MySQL. In making decisions in these matters, Oracle is facing an obvious conflict of interest – the continued development of a powerful, feature rich free alternative to its core product.

As only the original rights holder can sell commercial licenses, no new forked version of the code will have the ability to practice the parallel licensing approach, and will not easily generate the resources to support continued development of the MySQL platform.

The acquisition of MySQL by Oracle will be a major setback to the development of a FLOSS database platform, potentially alienating and dispersing MySQL’s core community of developers. It could take several years before another database platform could rival the progress and opportunities now available to MySQL, because it will take time before any of them attract and cultivate a large enough team of developers and achieve a similar customer base.

Yet another way in which Oracle will have the ability to determine the forking of MySQL relates to the evolution of the GNU GPL license. GPL version 2.0 (GPLv2) and GPL version 3.0 (GPLv3) are different licenses and each requires that any modified program carry the same license as the original. There are fundamental and unavoidable legal obstacles to combining code from programs licensed under the different GPL versions. Today MySQL is only available to the public under GPLv2.

What the GPL was intended to do, and rightly so, was to give users the right to do anything they wished with the source code of the software as long as they gave similar rights to downstream users. No one has to choose the GPL, and quality of service is not a function of the software license. But such a license does allow those using the software to hire other people to work on the code in case the original developers stop providing the service for any number of reasons, or fork it into a different project if they are not satisfied with the direction the current project is taking. There is a small problem in all this, as Stallman recognizes, and I am sure he did not have that epiphany when he wrote that letter—those who own the copyright to the code have the ability to license it any which way they please, and this ability is denied to downstream users. But the GPL was not meant to prevent this.

If MySQL has the rights to its code, and Oracle decides to torpedo the db in favor of its own line, the only two alternatives available to those affected by the situation are to fork the code and continue its development as free software, and somehow find the cash to sustain it, or move to some other db. If “intellectual property” is bad, using state power rather than individual initiative to force a company to behave in a particular manner is worse. That most “big” companies no longer do business but lobby and play venal politics is a different matter altogether.

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