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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: 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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Brian "Krow" Aker

(no subject)

from: krow
date: Oct. 22nd, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)

Dual licensing is both acceptable under the GPL and is a viable business model. What I am saying is that it is short sighted and a negative influence on the communities that exist around open source.

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I have to disagree...

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:10 am (UTC)

While the FOSS model has many advantages it is not for everyone and every situation. Because of low conversion rates, it really makes the most sense in very large markets. It can also make sense for contributing your code (with no compensation) and for helping to build a consulting practice. But there are many other models that can complement FOSS software for niche markets that simply cannot support a viable business and justify the investment of time and effort without some sort of licensing. The more you constrain the available business models, the more you hinder the growth of a vibrant ecosystem, which ultimately harms the original FOSS product. If you truly want FOSS to compete with closed source, you must avoid forcing a business model on the ecosystem. Centralized planning is a failed economic model and it will fail as a software licensing model as well.

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It can have positive influence

from: anonymous
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:42 am (UTC)

Your view of dual licensing is partial. My company (SME) currently markets a prioprietary, closed source, application that is highly innovative and has no FLOSS equivalent today.

We are pushing towards a dual-licensing open-source level to broaden adoption, and bring a new software to the FLOSS world. If dual-licensing is a good model for companies like ours, it will create value for the open source world at the end.

It would be a pity that the negative influences you mention just forbid to open source the code at all!

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Brian "Krow" Aker

Re: It can have positive influence

from: krow
date: Oct. 23rd, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC)

I've found that the value in open sourcing a product but keeping the development walled off, whether this be through not taking patches, or forcing developers to hand over their rights, has few benefits (though the enabling a product to enter into the "channel" which is open source can be valuable).

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