Sun becomes a patron of the Free Software Foundation

Sun's honeymoon with the Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation continued this week as the company opened its wallet to become a "patron of the FSF". Simon Phipps calls it "the start of a new phase of collaboration" between the two organizations. But will the Sun/FSF embrace actually end up helping to perpetuate proprietary software licenses?

Sun's honeymoon with the Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation

Sun becomes a patron of the Free Software Foundation
continued this week as the company became a patron of the FSF. Corporate patrons "affiliate themselves with the FSF and the GNU project" by providing financial support, according to the FSF web site, but the FSF "does not endorse the activities" of its patrons. Sun's Open Source officer Simon Phipps writes

Both organizations have been promoting software freedom in different ways for more than two decades, albeit in different ways and with different objectives. With the announcement that the Java platform will be licensed under the GPL, it seemed obvious that the connection should become stronger. This news is the start of a new phase of our collaboration and I'm delighted to have been involved in making this happen with my colleagues and our friends at the FSF. What a great way to celebrate Sun's 25th birthday.

Other patrons of the Free Software Foundation include IBM, Google, HP, Intel, Cisco, Nokia, and EMC. The size or duration of Sun's financial support was not disclosed.

The relationship between Sun and the FSF began in earnest when Sun released Java under GPLv2 in November 2006. Richard Stallman even made a video appearance to endorse the move. (I suppose an endorsement was OK then because Sun was not a patron at that point.) Tim Bray explained in an exclusive interview with ZDnet that GPL was chosen to satisfy the free software community. "GPL... is uniquely effective at removing the observed barriers to adoption," he said. However by using GPL, Sun distanced itself from the Apache Harmony project, which is sponsored in part by Sun's nemesis IBM.

Executive VP of Software Rich Green hinted that Sun was considering releasing Solaris under the GPL as well, partly depending on how well the experience with GPL Java went. And earlier this month, Sun's CEO Jonathan Schwartz indicated he'd like for both Java and Solaris to be licensed under GPLv3, the foundation's new free software license due out later this year. This is in stark contrast to the reluctance expressed by GNU/Linux kernel developers who object to some of the terms being discussed for the new license.

Unlike GNU/Linux, however, there is a single copyright holder for Solaris - Sun. This means that Sun can offer a commercial license option for any customers who can't agree to the GPL's terms. So in a round-about way, by improving ties with Sun the Free Software Foundation could actually end up helping to perpetuate proprietary software licenses.

Consider that one of the objections the FSF has with more permissive licenses like Apache is that corporations can take the code under a proprietary umbrella. The software can be used and improved in a closed source environment without giving anything back to the free version. The only difference between this and GPL Solaris would be that with GPL only the copyright holder (Sun) could "go proprietary". A license like Apache levels the playing field so that anyone could benefit (or suffer, depending on your point of view) by making that choice. As ironic as it seems, GPL could provide more protection for the author's "intellectual property" and profit potential from commercial dual-licensing.

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