Stallman admits GPL flawed, proprietary licensing needed to pay for MySQL development

Stallman admits GPL flawed, proprietary licensing needed to pay for MySQL development

Summary: 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. Score one for pragmatism over purity.

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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)

Topics: CXO, Data Centers, Data Management, Enterprise Software, Open Source, Software, IT Employment

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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67 comments
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  • You really believe that?

    Look at Red Hat. $5.1 Bln market cap and they're not making *any* money with free software? There is plenty of money out there for consulting services and support. Just ask IBM.

    Proprietary software is not religion.

    The problem with Sun was that they couldn't commit either way. Red Hat is committed to free software and they profit from it, consistently.

    I suppose that in your dream world, Microsoft would be the best suitor to purchase Sun. That might explain why Microsoft Codeplex advisor Monty Widenius doesn't like <a href="http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20091021164738392">the deal</a>. Unless of course, Oracle sells MySQL to somebody else.
    epitax
    • The issue is ownership and fairness

      Red Hat makes money by consulting and support, not by building proprietary closed-source versions of the Linux kernel. They couldn't do that because they don't own the copyright. But for the sake of argument, imagine one person or company *did* own the copyright to Linux. They *could* make proprietary versions. Now suppose they were bought by HP or IBM or Novel or Microsoft. Then those companies could fold Linux innovations into their own proprietary operating systems, even though the kernel is licensed under the GPL. And *nobody* *else* *could*, even if they had previously contributed to the project. That's what I mean by the flaw, and it's the reality with MySQL that Stallman and others are warning about.
      Ed Burnette
      • Except that...

        RHEL is not the same as Fedora. Certain parts of RHEL are proprietary, and you can't get RHEL for free. Ditto for SUSE.

        Ubuntu also has certain components that are also not licensed under the GPL, which is why they had to create a separate installer for the FLOSS variant.
        Joe_Raby
        • huh?

          All of RHEL is on GPL except for the trademarked images and logos. If your definition of proprietary included trademarked images and logos then we are talking about completely different things. The vast majority of people know that the source code of RHEL is freely downloadable (and hence you can compile and use it) and cannot be construed to be proprietary.

          Perhaps you are referring to third party applications included in the RHEL distribution - like flash, proprietary Java/JDK. Those are not Red Hat packaged products per se, but from others, but included as a service to subscribers of RHEL.
          h.pillay@...
      • No really true Ed. Lets use your example.

        "Then those companies could fold Linux innovations into their own proprietary operating systems, even though the kernel is licensed under the GPL. And *nobody* *else* *could*, even if they had previously contributed to the project."


        Just not true.

        Nothing stopping any other open source person or group from doing exactly the same thing. The only difference in the end is that they have to give their code away and that has always been true of the GPL. Nothing has changed. The only difference is that a for profit company can do it by virtue of dollars instead of a large community.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • Sorry, I disagree

          "Nothing stopping any other open source person or group from doing exactly the same thing."

          What's stopping them is copyright law and the wording of the software license!

          "The only difference in the end is that they have to give their code away and that has always been true of the GPL."

          What you say is true for everybody in the world *except for the person or company that holds the copyright on the code*. They have unlimited rights, including the right to change the license and create a proprietary fork of formerly GPL'd code.(*) I mean, it's their code so they should get to decide what to do with it, right? I think what the letter is trying to say is that that's not fair, i.e., not a level playing field.

          (*) And yes, I know the original unforked GPL-covered code would not go away. Somebody could run with that and create something much better than the proprietary fork. It has happened before. But the fork-er would not have the same rights as the copyright holder for those parts the fork-er didn't rewrite.
          Ed Burnette
    • Business Model

      In the final analysis the customer pays anywhow, whether its for the software or for the support services. It's surely just a different business model we are talking about. The incentive for a commercial developer is to minimize or eliminate support costs. It follows that a FOSS developer has an incentive to ensure there's support required...
      jerry.bloom@...
      • Ensure support is required?

        You mean by writing buggy, hard to use code? That reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon.
        Ed Burnette
  • Nice, if pitiful, try.

    Mr. Stallman and his co-writers are saying not
    that the GPL is flawed, but that Oracle's purchase
    of MySQL, hobbled by its dual proprietary license, is
    flawed.

    A-for-effort on the spin, though. Share some scones with
    Mikey, you adorable troll, you.
    TriangleDoor
    • GPL Flawed

      For what it's worth, I see myself as part of the usually silent majority on
      this issue, and I concur absolutely with the author's views.

      Do we all agree MySQL is a good thing? If we do, then we surely have to
      accept that the way they have chosen to fund their development is a
      good thing? We cannot re-write history and say they could have achieved
      what they have achieved using a services only model.

      MySQL is not hobbled by a dual proprietary license - it was enabled by it.
      As is SugarCRM, and so many of the successful commercial open source
      innovations we see today.
      michael@...
      • "Not hobbled... enabled"

        Well put. A lot, not all but a lot, of MySQL's technology was funded by that dual license. It's a fact of life that some companies (hint: the big ones with money to spend) won't touch GPL. They like paying for things, they like commercial licenses, and they like to know who to call when something goes wrong.
        Ed Burnette
    • The license is flawed, not the purchase

      Websters defines a flaw as "A crack or breach; a gap or fissure; a defect of continuity or cohesion".

      With GPL there's a huge gap between the rights of the copyright holder and the rights of the user. This breaks the continuity of the free and open software community, breaking the cohesion between the holders and non-holders, the haves and have-nots.

      In the business world of mergers and acquisitions you can never predict who's going to end up owning what. You can't say that certain owners are not worthy and prevent them from owning things. What you *can* do is choose a license that guarantees freedom for everyone regardless of the owner. If MySQL were licensed under a different license like Apache or BSD or MIT, then everybody would have the same rights and freedoms. It would be a level playing field.

      PS: Who's Mikey?
      Ed Burnette
      • PS: Who's Mikey?

        His brain's nickname
        markbn
      • Other than the right to dual-license a derivative work, what else?

        Ed,

        You say "With GPL there's a huge gap between the rights of the copyright holder and the rights of the user." Other than the right to dual license a derivative work, what else are you talking about? What constitutes that "huge gap"?

        You say "user", but that's a misnomer: A simple "user" who does not redistribute a GPL'd work isn't even affected by the limitation you refer to. Don't you mean programmer or developer?
        NetArch.
        • Re: Other than the right to dual-license a derivative work, what else?

          "Don't you mean programmer or developer?"

          I've tried to argue for the distinction between users and developers before, but the consensus seems to be that it's an arbitrary distinction because any user could potentially become a developer (either by learning how or by hiring somebody to do it on their behalf). Does running "configure" and "make" make you a developer? How about writing a macro in a spreadsheet? It's a fine line that moves and is probably not legally relevant anyway.

          "Other than the right to dual license a derivative work, what else are you talking about?"

          Anything. For example if I bought the MySQL database I could take its query optimizer and plug it into my proprietary database without even putting a notice somewhere.
          Ed Burnette
  • For coverage of this topic that's *not* anti-GPL FUD...

    ...see "Reasons I Believe the Community Should Support
    the Oracle-Sun Deal" (http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?
    story=20091021164738392).

    TriangleDoor
    • Please point out the FUD

      I challenge you to point out any "FUD" in what I wrote.
      Ed Burnette
      • "Huge Gap"

        I pointed out what I believe to be FUD in my post above.
        NetArch.
    • Not FUD? Did you read it?

      Go read the comments on that Groklaw article. Find the one titled
      "Whois: Monty" and read PJ's response, where she says she suspects that
      Monty is a double agent for the benefit of Microsoft.

      PJ says in another comment that she thinks Stallman must have been
      tricked into signing the letter to the EU.
      PorkPrick
  • Sounds like "someone" is complaining because ...

    "someone" won't be able to "make money" off other's work.
    This is like the "rich" complaining about taxes!
    kd5auq