Richard Stallman's shackles: The open source Java acid test?

Richard Stallman's shackles: The open source Java acid test?

Summary: Yesterday, I published a pair of posts that connect the dots between the recent Novell/Microsoft pact and Sun's plans to open source Java. I've been following the comments that ZDNet's readers have been filing under both.

TOPICS: Open Source

Yesterday, I published a pair of posts that connect the dots between the recent Novell/Microsoft pact and Sun's plans to open source Java. I've been following the comments that ZDNet's readers have been filing under both. But there's a thread on the second post that's addressing whether or not it really matters what open source license Sun uses to open source Java. To summarize, there are those that feel it doesn't matter whether it's Sun's CDDL license or the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License. Either way, they say, GNU/Linux distros will be able to include Java and that's all that matters. But I'm not so sure the issue is as simple as that.

When and if Sun open sources Java (as it is expected to do), one of the big questions among developers that have eschewed it for so long is whether or not the new terms will pass the smell test of Free Software Foundation (FSF) patriarch and father of the free software world Richard Stallman.

Why should Sun even care what Stallman thinks?

Well, one reason for Sun to open source Java is to draw more developers into the Java ecosystem. Advocates of free/open source software (FOSS) and open standards often talk about how, when technologies are truly open, their inventors can usually expect their slice of the resulting ecosystem to actually be bigger than the pie they would have kept to themselves if the technology stayed closed.  Developers have a way of flocking to open and unencumbered technologies.

Of course, your next question is, well, if Sun open sources Java, who cares about pie slices. At that point, the software is free in which case you could have the largest slice in the world and it wouldn't matter since it'd be impossible to monetize. In theory that sounds about right. But, then again, if that was really the case, Red Hat wouldn't exist. Not only that, notwithstanding the growth that Sun's hardware business might get out of an expanded Java ecosystem (not a gurantee), Java is already the life blood behind thousands of enterprise class applications, many of which involve customed developed software that represents the intellectual property of world's top corporations.

Just like with MySQL and JBoss, both of which involve hybrid-licensing models, there will be a community of these enterprises whose lawyers are so uncomfortable with having GPL'd software in their midst that they insist on having a commercial license instead. I'm not justifying their feelings about the risk. It's just reality and that's not about to change. But, if the number of developers in the Java ecosystem changes, then it stands to reason that Java will get even more traction than it already has in businesses, which could in turn yield more licensing revenue for Sun as some of those businesses establish a preference for a commercial license for Java, versus an open source one.

But before the FOSS developers that have eschewed Java have a change of heart, they may need to hear from Richard Stallman first. That's because, in 2004, Stallman singled out Java for some harsh criticism that doesn't reserve for many technologies. And when Stallman speaks (or writes in that case), the developers who believe in the principles of free software (slightly different than open source software) -- particularly in the principles of the GNU General Public License (GPL) and other FSF-endorsed licenses -- listen.

Back in April of 2004, in an essay titled Free But Schackled - The Java Trap, Stallman wrote:

If your program is free software, it is basically ethical--but there is a trap you must be on guard for. Your program, though in itself free, may be restricted by non-free software that it depends on. Since the problem is most prominent today for Java programs, we call it the Java Trap.

Ouch! That's like calling all tissue Kleenex or all bandages Band-Aids. Only this time, instead of carrying a postive connotation, it's a negative one which isn't good for any brand. Perhaps a better analogy is when unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) got the nickname spam. The makers of Spam saw no humor in the co-opting of their coveted brand name. In one fell swoop, the word "Java" became the brand name of a disease that FOSS developers had to be on the lookout for in all free software, not just Java-related software.  

The essay goes on to say:

....people who write free software often feel Java is sexy. Blinded by their attraction to the language, they overlook the issue of dependencies, and they fall into the Java Trap...Sun's implementation of Java is non-free. Blackdown is also non-free; it is an adaptation of Sun's proprietary code. The standard Java libraries are non-free also. We do have free implementations of Java, such as the GNU Compiler for Java (GCJ) and GNU Classpath, but they don't support all the features yet. We are still catching up.....If you develop a Java program on Sun's Java platform, you are liable to use Sun-only features without even noticing. By the time you find this out, you may have been using them for months, and redoing the work could take more months. You might say, "It's too much work to start over." Then your program will have fallen into the Java Trap; it will be unusable in the Free World...

....Whatever job you want to do, you can do it on a free platform; there is no need to accept a non-free dependency even temporarily. The main reason people fall into the trap today is because they are not thinking about it. The easiest solution to the problem of the Java Trap is to teach people not to fall into it. To keep your Java code safe from the Java Trap, install a free Java development environment and use it. More generally, whatever language you use, keep your eyes open, and check the free status of programs your code depends on. The easiest way to verify that program is free is by looking for it in the Free Software Directory ( 

Today, Sun's Java is not on the list (Eclipse is!). The question is, come the time that Sun open source Java (any moment now), will it be (on the list)? Will the Java trap have been sprung? In hopes of getting him for a podcast interview, I've been trading emails with Stallman on a separate issue. But I'm going to add this to this to the list of issues I'm hoping to cover once we work things out.

Topic: Open Source

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Only 6 distros are listed as having only free software

    Only DyneBolic is a very well known one.

    Several things here;

    1. FOSS developers are not eschewing the Java language. Go look on sourceforge at how many projects are written in Java - it's a lot.

    2. What the FSF is doing is writing their own Free Java Virtual Machine.

    3. The FSF is doing the same with Flash with the Gnash project.

    4. Some commercial distros, such as Linspire, already include Java.

    5. FOSS/FLOSS is not only Free software. The Acronym stands for Free (Libre) Open Source Software. Open Source software is a set of software where the source is available and in some way modifiable.

    Free software is certainly a subset of that definition but Free software goes beyond that and requires that the software be not only modifiable but that you and people whom you pass the software along to have the same Freedom to view/modify the source code and make derivatives +distribute those derivatives that you do and is licensed in such a way that if you do not pass those freedoms along you yourself do not have that freedom.
    Edward Meyers
    • Doesn't change the fundamental question

      I have no arguments with anything you say. The question is whether the FSF wants to keep on chasing after the ever evolving Java with something that's free, or, if Java can just be free from the getgo, thereby freeing the FSF from any concern (not to mention the resources deployed against arriving at a free version).

      So, the question still stands. When all is said and done, will it pass RMS's smell test or not?

      • This one is easy

        Unless Sun chooses the GPL or GPL compatible license, the CDDL is neither, then the FSF will continue efforts to make their own version.

        This however will not effect whether or not it's Java gets included in Debian or Fedora. The CDDL is good enough for Fedora and most likely good enough for Debian.

        So in short... The FSF will continue it's development efforts and 97%+ of the distros will include a choice between the Sun version and FSF/other versions.
        Edward Meyers
      • The FSF...

        ... is a rabid about this sort of thing. Stallman's proposition that you can accidentely use Sun-only classes is not as straightforward as he presents it. You can identify those that are sun dependant and avoid them and if you are too ignorant to be able to do that then should you be designing and building Java apps?

        If they wish to create a Java fork then that is up to them but for the rest of us there's enough JREs and IDEs out there just to get on with things.

        Submarine tatics where a licence fee suddenly surfaces for Java usage one day would do Sun irreparable harm.

        As to the question [i]"will it pass RMS's smell test or not?"[/i] the answer is no.
      • The Ever Evolving Java

        The ?ever evolving Java? is a well-documented language specification,
        I have a hunch Sun doesn?t want its implementers ?chasing? after conformance.
        In any event, I don?t think it?s a bad idea to have a free software implementation. My interpretation of the FSF position is that they don?t really need Sun?s implementation, so why would they be willing to compromise free software standards for it?
        As with Open Solaris, Sun is once again tardy.
    • Java under the GPL?

      Hmm. I smell a bait-and-switch here. They can the Java engine under GPL if they like, but Sun's greatest strength here is the test suites that confirm that a given engine [i]complies[/i] with their Java specification. They have traditional kept those tests very closely held, and usetrade mark law to stop anyone claiming compliance that hasn't joined the little club.

      Are they going to open the compliance tests, and stop asserting Java trade mark control? Ask your Sun rep when you see him, preferably when he has a mouth full of food.
  • Sun to use GPL

    Perhaps it will pass the RMS smell test. eWeek is reporting that it will happen on Monday:

    [i]First, Sun Microsystems wouldn't do it. Then Sun teased us with it. Now, on Nov. 13, Linux-Watch has learned that Sun will finally open-source its implementations of Java under the GNU GPL v2.[/i],1759,2055994,00.asp?kc=EWRSS03129TX1K0000616
    • Cue "Rocky" theme song

      Now we don't have to speculate... we can watch and see.
    • Good tip. Thanks.

      The link doesn't work anymore, but you clearly didn't fabricate it. I checked eWeek's search results and eWeek did in fact have this story posted at some point. Now, it appears to have been taken down.


      • It was up when I posted my response.

        Maybe somebody jumped the gun? Didn't validate a source?

        In any event, it was clearly what 30otsix described, and it wasn't just a passing reference to the GPL v2, either.
      • It's official now
        Ed Burnette
        • Re: It's official now

          ...presumably the most 'official' place to look would be Sun's own website,
          • Re: It's official now

            ...including a video from RMS..... interesting.
  • Stallman has given his official blessing ...

    Here's a video of Richard Stallman giving GPL'd Java his blessing:
  • Stallman's blessing, better link

    This link might work better:

    Nice blog, and good questions asked by David Berlind.

    However, the big question has been answered.

    Stallman is even congratulating Sun, and saying they're being a leader.

    Good stuff.
  • Changing licenses is inherently dangerous !

    the very fact that there is now a proliferation of license changes in Open Source and with other groups,

    Does that NOT RING ALARM BELLS for you.

    the very fact that Linux does not want to change Linux's license, and NOT that he cant means that at any time in the future the code be it linux or any open source project, CAN BE CLOSED. simply by changing the license wording.

    IMO, this is wrong, its what you accuse Microsoft of being able to do, that is, restrict or stop the usage of your software, OS or appliacation simply by changing the license to it.

    Linus Torvalds owns the copyright to Linux, he has stated that even though he feels he is capable of changing the GPL on linux to v3 he does not want to.

    but he's not saying that as the code was written under one license it has to remain under this license agreement.

    its basically changing the rules of the game, mid game, to suit your own wishes and requirements.

    Bitmover, with Bitkeep, had a license to allow "free" use of bitkeep to maintain the Linux kernel.
    what they saw a threat to their product, by possible competition, he chose to change the license to suit his new reqirements.

    so DONT TRUST Open Source GPL's because mabey next year they will create GPLv4, or GPLv5, to deal with some other percieved problems with FOSS.

    its going to look very very bad for FOSS if the GPL is modified in response to the Novell/MS contract.
    because this will show the FOSS community up as what it really is.. reactionary, reactive and not proactive.

    if Novell/MS have made legal agreements that do not breach the GPL, BY THE LETTER, changing the license to make them breach the GPL will just look petty and well stupid.

    it would be equivalnt to being pulled over for doing 55MPH, the legal speed. But then have to police man lower the speed limit to 45MPH, so he can book you !!

    talk about breaking the "spirit" of a license is also a joke, and changing the license to lock out people who have worked within that license will win you no friends..

    i for one will never trust ANY GPL, and will cease developing code with gcc, and move to commercial compilers to ensure my code remains MINE...

    FOSS, and stallman also has a problems, not often considered, that is

    PRICE FIXING, this is illegal, its when a group or community team up to set the price of a product to gain a higher market share, and higher profits.

    and "FREE" is a price, "FREE" is a FIXED price, so by definition you are a cartel and engage in Price Fixing.

    and ANTI-Competitive trading.

    FOSS's model is basicall, slavery, price fixing, and ANTI-Competitive trading.

    all the things stallman claims to be against.

    no wonder big business love him, as people have said, he's recruited a large group of average programmers and a free, slavery labour force.

    so Rad Had can charge $18,000 for their AIX Linux..

    good one FOSS..