Software freedom activist Richard Stallman and others are trying to block Oracle's acquisition of MySQL. Why? Because MySQL is covered by the GNU Public License (GPL), and the purchase has exposed a flaw in the GPL that Stallman says will cause a "major setback" to the development of the free database if the acquisition is allowed to go through.
Under the GPL, the copyright holder (usually the author) has special privileges that no one else has: they can use the code in a proprietary product. In an open letter to the European Commission, Stallman admits that revenue from this proprietary licensing is necessary to fund development for the free version (emphasis added):
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.... 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 letter was signed by Richard Stallman and representatives from Knowledge Ecology International and the Open Rights Group.
Stallman's position is exceptional when viewed against his long history of evangelizing Free (as in speech) software as the "morally correct choice" that trumps all other considerations. Compare the letter above with this sermon on his gnu.org web site:
Proprietary software developers have the advantage of money; free software developers need to make advantages for each other. Using the ordinary GPL for a library gives free software developers an advantage over proprietary developers: a library that they can use, while proprietary developers cannot use it.... Proprietary software developers, seeking to deny the free competition an important advantage, will try to convince authors not to contribute libraries to the GPL-covered collection.... But we should not listen to these temptations, because we can achieve much more if we stand together.
We free software developers should support one another. By releasing libraries that are limited to free software only, we can help each other's free software packages outdo the proprietary alternatives. The whole free software movement will have more popularity, because free software as a whole will stack up better against the competition.
Even if MySQL were owned by Oracle because of its purchase of Sun, the database would still be Free Software. Anyone could use the source code, build their own version, and distribute it to others. But finally Stallman has recognized that may not be good enough because somebody has to pay for this stuff. Score one for pragmatism over purity. Hallelujah.
(Photo illustration by Zack Whittaker)