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RMS, GPL, The Peculiar Institution of Dual Licensing

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Oct. 22nd, 2009 | 11:28 am

I am going to take the words of my colleague Tim Bray to explain my own position regarding the acquisition of Sun by Oracle:

[Disclosure: I have no non-public information on any of the MySQL-related 
aspects of the Sun/Oracle transaction, nor on the current anti-trust review, 
and I am not speaking for anyone but myself.]
Just to further add to this, I am one of the main contributors to the largest community driven and contributed fork of the MySQL server, Drizzle.

From Richard Stallman:

MySQL is made available to the public in two parallel ways. Most users 
obtain it as free/libre software under the GNU General Public License 
(GPL) version 2; the code is released in this way gratis. 
MySQL is also available under a different, proprietary license for a fee.
This approach was able to provide (1) an attractive platform for 
developers looking to use FLOSS, and secured MySQL enormous 
mind share, particularly in supporting content rich web pages and 
other Internet applications, and (2) the ability for paying clientèle to 
combine and distribute MySQL in customizations that they do not 
want to make available to the public as free/libre software under the GPL. 
With excellent management and considerable trust within the user 
community, MySQL became the gold standard for web based FLOSS 
database applications.

What I find sad is Richard's commitment to the expansion of more close source software by the means of a "Robin Hood" sort of philosophy. Dual Licensing is nothing more then the creation of yet more software, where the end result is the creation of not more open source software, but the creation of yet more closed source software.

The GPL's approach is to provide a stick or carrot. If you are open source, then you don't pay, assuming of you are "the right" sort of open source. If you are close source or pick a license which is not compatible with the GPL you are forced into paying for use of a commercial license. When you "pay" for open source the freedom that was originally offered to the end user is removed. In the case of incompatible open source licenses you too are forced into the position of removing the freedom granted both and possibly the freedom you granted to your own work. Take any current distribution of a linux distribution and do the research on licenses within it. The tangled mess that is found will confuse anyone. MySQL itself was only able to solve some of this by offering a "FLOSS Exception" to the portions of the code it owns.

Dual licensing is anti-open source. I have no issues with this per-se, but I find his support of a "peculiar institution" a bit head scratching.

At the heart of dual licensing is "ownership rights", which inevitably come into conflict with the nature of open source. Open Source projects that preserve the ability to do dual license come into conflict with the developers who contribute the code. For the project to continue it must ask the original developer to give up their rights to the code via copyright assignment (there is some debate on whether copyright can be held in joint, but this is often disputed by lawyers). Thus dual licensing forces any developer who wishes to contribute into a position of either giving up their rights and allowing their work to end up in commercial software, or creating a fork of the software with their changes. In essence it creates monopolies which can only be broken via forking the software.Forking software over small changes is for the most part unviable because of the cost of keeping a fork of the software up to date, but it is not impossible.

I, being one of the main contributors of the largest of the MySQL forks, Drizzle, can tell you that this is no simple task but is quite achievable. Our reward has been that in our single year of operation we have achieved a larger base of contributions then MySQL achieved in its decade long existence. Community contribution at the expense of proprietary extensions is a small price compare if you consider the value that surrounds us by releasing that opportunity.

The conflict inherent in trying to reserve rights, and take the rights from others, leads to conflict.

If you wish to observe this in action, take a look at the internals@mysql.com list. Watch the jockeying and counter posture attacks that go on between Sun, MontyAB, and other groups. Each group trying to take rights and create position within the MySQL codebase. None of this does any good for the ecosystem surrounding MySQL. Users lose out in the end as bug fixes and enhancements are lost over an attempt to hold eventual rights that will be reserved for proprietary software, and at the same time creating a monopoly for the single party who gains "rights" control over the project.

What I find sad about this is Richard's own lack of imagination when it comes to the opportunity he has at hand. Here is an opportunity for him to influence Europe's main body and push forward the concepts of co-operation and community that surround open sources, and he wastes it for the opportunity to preserve the "peculiar institution" of dual licensing and furthering monopolistic intentions.

Preservations of the rights of end users, linking issues, open source license compatibilities, the rights of open source developers to continue their work... there are a plethora of concepts and actions he could be investigating.

Richard's advocation for dual license is in conflict with the concept of the nature of the free exchange of ideas and concepts within the open source community. His attempts at being an open source advocate on the point in question?


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Comments {30}

(no subject)

from: _justanotherme_
date: Oct. 22nd, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)

Somehow the Richard Stallman quote isn't very nice to LJ layouts.
(including your own, you might want to add some enters or something)

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Brian "Krow" Aker

(no subject)

from: krow
date: Oct. 22nd, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC)


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(no subject)

from: ext_211387
date: Oct. 22nd, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)

I fully agree with your opinion on this. Richard Stallman has become a token of the extremist open source opinion, and I feel this counter-productive.

While I can agree with him from a pure philosophical standpoint, his viewpoints around this and other matters are treated as unpractical and mostly hypothetical.

While it's perfectly fine to have these extremist open source opinions, I'd love to see the FSF being run by someone who also realizes the software world will not be able to instantly throw their business models out of the window.

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 22nd, 2009 09:22 pm (UTC)

That doesn't make sense. In this case you should appreciate RMS, since he is in effect promoting the "out" option with the GPL: dual-licensing.

If I read Brian right, he thinks dual-licensing shouldn't be allowed (or at least promoted over, say, the tangible existing benefits of GPL software). This would in effect make him more "extreme" than RMS. Unless I'm totally lost.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Expand

Stallman actually taking a pragmatic approach

from: ext_211402
date: Oct. 22nd, 2009 11:07 pm (UTC)

I had originally read the letter as meaning Stallman wanted to allow organizations other than Oracle to offer MySQL under non-free licenses to guarantee future funds to develop MySQL (and I thought the reason was that Stallman wasn't looking forward to a possible future where the FSF tried to fund development). This seemed like a strangely pragmatic approach for Stallman.

However, I think the meat is in the following:

"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. ... Today MySQL is only available to the public under GPLv2. ...

"Because the current MySQL license lacks [the 'any later version'] 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. ... [T]he lack of a more flexible license for MySQL will present considerable barriers to a new forked development path for MySQL."

I think Stallman is really only concerned with the "can't use MySQL code with GPL 3" issue not the "how do we guarantee organizations other than the FSF spearhead future development of the code" question.

The facts that (1) you currently are spearheading such development, and (2) you're getting more involvement than the main branch means that your opinion is very interesting.

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from: anonymous
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)

I agree with a lot of your perspective here. I somewhat have to given your own contributions to the code ecosystem. But I don't see how this is incompatible with what KEI is arguing. Their letter is about a specific event with a specific company, whereas you are discussing general notions of what is better.

I don't see how RMS et al suffered from a lack of imagination. They are making a very credible case about the likely outcome of what is going to happen here and how that might impact end users, i.e. the general public, i.e. EU citizens. I'm not as close to the issue as you might be, but their case sounds right to me. And I hope the EU takes this into consideration. KEI is arguing that what was once MySQL AB can continue as an entity - whether a subsidiary or independent company - just not fairly under ownership by Oracle.

While their letter doesn't pass judgement on the MySQL project's choice of license, I read their case as a warning for people like you and I who care about software freedom: taking out the "and future versions" clause while offering the code under another licence will inhibit future contributions from the community at large. As others have noted, many were vaguely reluctant to trust MySQL's model from the beginning.

But, that's where the project now is, and that's where the company now is, and the decision to be made isn't about whether this is a cathedral or a bazaar - it's over whether Oracle should own that company and its assets (i.e. code copyright).

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Lover of Ideas

I have an elaborate theory about this...

from: omnifarious
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 04:07 am (UTC)

I think Richard Stallman himself secretly believes that Free Software is incompatible with business. I think one of the things he finds most distressing about "Open Source" is how one of the focuses is the idea that Free Software is good for business. I think he feels the movement is destined to failure as adhering to the ideals and making a profit butt heads and making a profit wins out.

So, he can't get his head around the real outcome of any attempt by Oracle to close up MySQL, which is basically that their version of MySQL will die. Instead he thinks that proprietary software has the more efficient economic model due to their ability to extract rent from the users of the software, and thinks that Oracle's version will become the dominant one.

He thinks long-term economic viability and the ideals are fundamentally opposed concepts.

I think he's wrong. I think you think he's wrong. There (IMHO) is mountains of evidence in the world showing that he is likely wrong. But I doubt he will ever change his mind because his ideal is so much more important to him than whether or not it's economically more efficient that he can't see that it really is.

Edited at 2009-10-23 04:07 am (UTC)

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Re: I have an elaborate theory about this...

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 08:39 am (UTC)

Big Stinkin' Deal (BSD).

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Re: I have an elaborate theory about this...

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)

I think people are missing the very essence of open source because they are looking at it from the wrong perspective.

I liken the fundamental principle behind open source to a statement attributed to Bernard of Chartres and famously used by Isaac Newton - "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Newton built upon the knowledge and discoveries of others in discovering the "truths" he shared with the world.

Open source is exactly that - people sharing knowledge that they have gained by building on the knowledge shared by others, in the form of software source code.

RMS's "extremist" idea is one that prevents greedy or unscrupulous people from coming along and using all this shared knowledge for their own benefit without sharing with the community the knowledge they were able to derive from it.

Those who look at open source from the wrong perspective label the GPL "viral" because of this. These people make statements implying that open source is some sort of entity with a directive to overthrow software companies. This is ridiculous, if not a little paranoid. Such statements are usually made by people with some sort of irrational sense of entitlement to something they could not possibly claim (tangible or otherwise). The fundamental thing that open source strives for is open, shared knowledge for the sake of open, shared knowledge - its a recognition of the process by which the human race has learned as much as it has about the universe, expressed in the form of a software development methodology.

RMS's extremist position is actually very rational.

I want to share with others the knowledge I have gained by building on top of the knowledge others have shared with me. However, I will not share my knowledge if others are able to build on it without sharing their gained knowledge back. The value I get from sharing my "work" is access to the shared "work" others build on it.

In other words, you are not going to stand on my shoulders if you aren't going to tell me what you see.

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You are misreading it

from: dasht
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)

RMS has not, in that letter, advocated in favor of dual licensing.

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Re: You are misreading it

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 26th, 2009 09:39 pm (UTC)

So go on, Tom, explain why this quote does not mean "block the acquisition because Oracle will be the only company with the freedom to dual license MySQL and that's a freedom everyone should have".

Quote from http://keionline.org/ec-mysql :
"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."

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I don't think that means what you think that means...

from: rev_dr_ace
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)

I don't think Stallman was defending dual-licensing, I think he was defending MySQL as an institution. The dual license enabled MySQL to bootstrap financial success (IMHO - no "control MySQL" with a pure GPL product to test against), but regardless of how they got there MySQL is the world's biggest open-source database. And Oracle is the world's biggest proprietary database. Of course the EC is going to take a long, hard look at this arranged marriage, and take their sweet time in understanding its implications.

I also know nothing about the Oracle deal which is not public, so I am speculating... but I speculate that the most likely thing for Oracle to try to do with MySQL is to turn it into a gateway drug for their proprietary product. Over the next several years they will probably hone MySQL's functionality to provide a smooth ramp into Oracle... meaning at the least that the evolution of MySQL will be restricted.

Now, in part the GPL saves MySQL, but as you have said yourself, there are a number of GPL MySQL flavors floating around the market. It will be a while before any of them gains the kind of market dominance that MySQL has now -- the kind of dominance that means managers don't even blink when you say, "Let's use MySQL." The kind of dominance that's needed to make it a reliable part of an open-source stack. And if Oracle is clever (and last I checked, they're clever) they will play their cards such that MySQL only changes verrry slowly, and there will never be a flood of customers on the market to financially support fledgling GPL forks. There will be a trickle, but it's easy to die on a trickle.

I agree with you entirely that the dual-licensing model is not exactly a box of chocolates. The devils in its details are certainly rattling their pitchforks these days.

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Brian "Krow" Aker

Re: I don't think that means what you think that means...

from: krow
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 11:55 pm (UTC)

The part that I believe Richard has never understood is how much damage dual licensing can cause to both the community and evolution of the codebase. I believe, and I mean to ask him, if he has ever considered this, or if he just considers "the ends worth the means".

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FOSS paradoxes

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 24th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)

I believe that both dual licensing and open core contain an implicit paradox which I can best sum-up by comparing them to a financing a peace march from the sale of arms.

FOSS needs a new business model in which even though all the code is open, it is still possible to earn revenues directly from the code, rather than from services or closed source extensions.

At first glance this would seem technically impossible, but actually it's not.

Couldn't be bothered with the various authentication options, but I'm David Semeria from Milan, Italy.

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Free Software is unavoidable

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 28th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)

As mentioned in previous comments, the focus of free software and the GPL is the scientific idea of sharing knowlege and building on existing knowledge.

In other words, knowledge and software is reused. If it is reused, it does not have to be developed twice. Ergo, the total sum of work spent on creating knowlege or software is lowerred, by reusing existing software and building on top of it. Therefore free software is economic to the maximum possible.

Further, one has to take into account that users of software (individuals and companies) don't want software because they want software per se, but what the software represents; a tool to improve their productivity.

Users don't care how much money the provider of the software makes and if it is an invidual, company or community behind it (in practice not true because companies are interested in support and long term commitment of the provider).

The service provided by a software is what has a value, not the software in itself. For the provider this is of course not as comfortable a selling licenses. Competition is higher, prices lower.

There is no way avoiding free software in the future, as it's overall the most efficient development model. And it is good that way.

Just a matter of time :-)

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