Is Sun right to insist on copyright transfer?

Summary:ZDNet blogger Joe Brockmeier has issued a stinging commentary that takes Sun to task for not practicing what it preaches.  In his blog, Brockmeier takes issue with the way certain Sun officials are saying that IBM should contribute developer hours to OpenOffice (based on usage) while Sun doesn't necessarily contribute to all of the open source projects it relies on.

ZDNet blogger Joe Brockmeier has issued a stinging commentary that takes Sun to task for not practicing what it preaches.  In his blog, Brockmeier takes issue with the way certain Sun officials are saying that IBM should contribute developer hours to OpenOffice (based on usage) while Sun doesn't necessarily contribute to all of the open source projects it relies on. 

One obvious reason IBM would never entertain the idea, according to Brockmeier,  is the dual open source license that's applied to OpenOffice.  With OpenOffice being one part GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and the other part Sun Industry Standards Source License (SISSL), Brockmeier argues that by contributing to OpenOffice.org, IBM would also be assisting with the development of OpenOffice's bigger and more proprietary cousin StarOffice.   Brockmeier explains that, under the SISSL, the copyrights to any code that's contributed to OpenOffice are automatically assigned to Sun (giving Sun more license over what it does with that code in StarOffice).   I agree with Brockmeier: It will probably be a cold day in hell before IBM tosses Sun a bucket (to assist with the bailing) let alone make a charitable donation to StarOffice's fortunes.

But the quirky dual license on OpenOffice.org does turn the spotlight on other open source licensing issues.  Judging by the way the open source lynch mob tied Sun to a tree branch when it applied yet another (new) open source license to OpenSolaris, Sun is damned if it does, and damned if doesn't.   Back in 2002, when I interviewed then Sun chief engineer Rob Gingell (who has since left the company), I learned of how he was one of the lightning rods within the company who was pushing for Solaris to be open sourced.   But then again, it was then that I also learned of how open-sourcing a proprietary product like Solaris or even Java is easier said than done because Sun didn't necessarily control all the copyrights to all of the code. (As evidenced by what JasperSoft had to do in order to go the other way when it acquired the open source project JasperReports, you need some degree of control over all the copyrights if you're thinking of changing the terms.)  Securing that control over the copyrights is sometimes easier said than done.  Some of the copyright holders were dead, I remember Gingell telling me.

Not that this was Sun's motivation for requiring that all copyrights on OpenOffice.org code be assigned to it, but you can see the Catch-22. It took more than two years from the time that Gingell began his quest to open source Solaris for it to happen, and having the necessary copyrights was one of the problems.  So, when a company like Sun, or any other company, demands that copyrights be assigned to it, it keeps that company's options open whereas they might not have been as open before.   Granted, in the case of code that's already open sourced (like code being contributed to OpenOffice.org), open source devotees will argue that Sun doesn't need any other options (for example, keeping the door open to go proprietary with some of the codebase).  

On the other hand, what if, in the name of an industry-wide license de-proliferation treaty (OSDL's Stuart Cohen says vendors are open to this idea), a company with the copyrights to a certain open source code base needed the flexibility to move that code base to one of a smaller handful of Open Source Initiative-approved licenses?  For example, what if the Sun authored, OSI-approved CDDL (first applied to OpenSolaris) turns out to be one of the open source license consolidation targets as some have suggested it could be? By owning all the copyrights to a certain codebase, open source or not, the owner is afforded a much easier time changing the licensing terms.  Again, I don't know whether Sun had that sort of foresight when it first applied the SISSL to OpenOffice.org. (In fact, I doubt that it did.) But I could also see that if somewhere down the road, the SISSL had to be retired as a part of an initiative to reduce the number of OSI-approved licenses, Sun would get crucified for not moving quickly enough to bring OpenOffice.org into the fold.  This is what happens when you lift up a piece of rotted wood.  Often, there are all sorts of ugly creatures hiding underneath it.

Topics: Oracle

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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