OpenOffice won't fork -- for now

OpenOffice won't fork -- for now

Summary: In spite of a bitter battle between Novell and Sun developers, OpenOffice won’t fork – at least for now.That's the consensus among several OpenOffice developers who are locked in a bitter dispute with Sun over how the open source project is governed but who nevertheless agree that a fork would be the worst outcome for a project that has enough difficulty competing against Microsoft Office let alone Google Apps and other online services in the future.


In spite of a bitter battle between Novell and Sun developers, OpenOffice won’t fork – at least for now.

That's the consensus among several OpenOffice developers who are locked in a bitter dispute with Sun over how the open source project is governed but who nevertheless agree that a fork would be the worst outcome for a project that has enough difficulty competing against Microsoft Office let alone Google Apps and other online services in the future.

"It's not something I want to see. It's not an ideal outcome," said Michael Meeks, a distinguished engineer at Novell and an OpenOffice developer who maintains that an OpenOffice fork is not in the works and won’t happen -- as long as Sun establishes an independent non-profit foundation like that of Mozilla or Apache to oversee OpenOffice decisions.

Concerns about a possible fork arose because the Go-OO build, an OpenOffice implementation maintained by Meeks and others, decided to include a feature that Sun rejected for inclusion in the next OpenOffice because the developer refused to sign Sun’s contributor agreement.

Meeks said in an interview that it is customary for Go-OO to include new technologies and that the latest build should not be viewed as a fork. But he hinted that a fork is not out of the question if Sun doesn’t loosen its grip on the OpenOffice project.

“It’s clear that if Sun continues to refuse to include changes under their own license then you will see a growing set of changes that can’t be included in OpenOffice, and then we’d see that delta increasing over time. Eventually, users can understand they can get a better OpenOffice than at," Meeks said this week during a telephone interview.

Them’s fightin’ words?

Sun, for its part, is fighting back, and has characterized the controversy as a baseless attack by a rival seeking competitive advantage. Most of the vocal opponents are Novell employees.

Sun open source guru Simon Phipps also argues that is released under the LGPL, that its provisions fall under the normal bounds of community norms and that the recently enacted Sun Contributor Agreement (which replaces the Joint Contributor Agreement) does not require outside developers to surrender their copyright.

In a recent blog, OpenOffice head Jim Parkinson pointed out that Sun recently revised the Contributor Agreement to address some issues raised by the community and established Community Advisory Board designed to address and mediate contributor issues.

The new board will hold its first meeting on October 29, Sun said this week. Still Sun’s Parkinson made it clear in an e-mail response that it has no intention of changing the governance of the project, which is led by the OpenOffice Community Council.

“Out of respect to the members of the newly created Community Advisory Board and the process, we cannot comment about the structure and boundaries of the Board until after its first meeting, which is the last week of October,” Parkinson said in a company-issued statement. “The Board will not manage the project's daily affairs, nor will it replace the's existing governing body, the Community Council. The council will continue to do what it has done so well: resolve community issues and conflicts, set community goals, manage community funds, and most important, give a voice to the hundreds of thousands who make up the community.”

Four out of five of the project leads of the Community Council are Sun employees.

Such tensions will naturally arise as proprietary companies step into the open source world. Novell may indeed relish the opportunity to take a poke at Sun but nevertheless challenging the authority and the powers-that-be is both healthy and appropriate.

Meeks and others took issue with Sun’s authority over the project and its (original and revised) contributor agreements following Sun's decision to reject a proposed contribution to the project – a spreadsheet Calc Solver developed by Kohei Yoshida, also a Novell employee, because he refused to sign Sun’s contributor agreement.

Yoshida released his Calc Solver functionality under the LGPL and requested that Sun include it as an OpenOffice extension. Sun declined, and then announced at the conference in Barcelona, Spain last month that it would develop its own Calc Solver, a move that infuriated Yoshida and others who say there’s no technical or logistical reason for the code to be dismissed since Sun has approved other LGPL released extensions for OpenOffice in the past.

“There is already a fair amount of non Sun owned LGPL code used within StarOffice as well as in so I did not think my request was that unreasonable," Yoshida said in an e-mail interview. "But why does the trouble of re-implementing it from scratch outweigh a slight compromise in code ownership? That I have a hard time understanding."

Phipps claims that both Meeks and Yoshida supported the Joint Copyright Assignment (JCA) in the past and are well aware that Sun requires such agreements to be signed in order to function as the legal steward of the code and guarantee protected use for wary corporate customers. He adds that the more liberal and recently revised Sun Contributor Agreement resolves any concerns about the shared ownership of the code.

Some of the Novell developers, and others, say, however, the new shared agreement looks good on paper but does little to address the fact that Sun is gaining ownership over all the code of an open source project. They suggest that Sun should not have unilateral power over which code gets accepted and which does not because outside developers, including Novell, now contribute a large share of code to OpenOffice, notably the recent integration of Microsoft Office macro translators.

Meeks also pointed out that Sun ought not compare its OpenOffice norms and guidelines to those of MySQL, Apache and Mozilla norms because it is a for-profit proprietary software company. In a recent interview, Novell vice president of engineering Miguel de Icaza said developers would not be bothered so much if Sun were trying to protect its own homegrown features such as ZFS. But as the project grows, authority should be more distributed, he suggested.

It is not clear how these issues will be resolved but no one wants an OpenOffice fork.

Yoshida, for his part, insists that he does not want to see an OpenOffice fork. “The answer is no. My personal feelings aside, I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest to fragement our scarce development resources,” he said, noting the Go-OO build is nothing new and is used by several Linux distributors.

“It’s not a fork. That said, people tend to frame the Go-OO build as a fork of Maybe they really wants to see a fork of Openoffice to set it free from Sun’s single corporate vision and control? I don’t know. But that’s not what’s happening.”

Sun declined to release a list of those invited to the board and meeting later this month. But it’s bound to be a colorful gathering, based on the war of words played out on the web.

In his blast at Novell's Meeks, Phipps points to great strides made by OpenOffice over the past several months, including new participation by Red Flag 2000 and IBM.

“In the midst of all this, I see my friend Michael Meeks has been challenging Sun in a creative way - it even made Slashdot today. I remember the days when Michael used to enthusiastically encourage community members to sign the contributor agreement, as recently as last December...,” Phipps wrote on his blog recently, questioning Mr Meeks' motives. It's a shame Michael has chosen now - a turning point in and a moment when Sun has radically improved the SCA in response to broad feedback from many communities - as a time to mount a fresh challenge to Sun that by implication also harms And when you distill out all the details, that's what this turns out to be even by Michael's admission - a competitive issue, not a community one."

Meeks shot back hard at that allegation, and said he only wants Sun to fork over absolute control over the OpenOffice decision making.

"I disagree with that analysis," Mr Meeks said in the telephone interview this week. "Sun's contributed a ton to OpenOffice and I'm not questioning Sun's commitment but how they structure it and why they want to own everything that is contributed to the project. The effect of the [SCA] shared assignments is to ensure that there's only one copyright owner for the entire work and that is Sun Microsystems."

Topics: Collaboration, Open Source, Oracle, Software

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
  • Stopping innovation?

    You can anything you like with open source, as long as we approve...
    • Open source does not preclude IP

      The sooner you recognize this, the sooner you'll be able to fundamentally understand what's going on here. As long as you don't have a clue, you'll continue grappling with the basic fundamentals of open source software and how it fits into the various "open source" licensing models. As has become painfully obvious from pretty much all your posts when it comes to open source, licensing and intellectual property, you are completely clueless.
  • Sun's new SCA is not better for the Developer

    There are a number of incorrect statement in this article. The new Sun Contributor Agreement (SCA), does require copyright to be assigned to Sun. See paragraph 2 at

    "2. You hereby assign to Sun joint ownership in all worldwide common law and statutory rights associated with the copyrights, copyright applications and copyright registrations in Your Contribution."

    In addition, it also grants an irrevocable license to Sun, in case the copyright assignment is held to be ineffective:

    "You hereby grant to Sun, to the extent that the foregoing assignment is or becomes void, ineffective or unenforceable, a perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide, no-charge, royalty-free, unrestricted license to exercise all rights under such copyrights, including sublicensing those rights to third parties through multiple tiers of sublicensees or other licensing mechanisms at Sun's option."

    The SCA also requires that you grant Sun a license to any patents that might be covered by the software:

    "3. You hereby grant to Sun a perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide, no-charge, royalty-free, license under any patents owned or licensable by You at any time without payment to third parties, to make, have made, use, sell, offer to sell, import and otherwise transfer Your Contribution in whole or in part, alone or in combination with or included in any product, work or materials arising out of the Project to which Your Contribution was submitted, and to sublicense the foregoing rights to third parties through multiple tiers of sublicensees or other licensing mechanisms at Sun's option."

    The SCA also makes it clear that Sun has no obligation toward you:

    "Whether by assignment or license, both parties to this Agreement shall be able to do all such things in relation to Your Contribution as if each of us respectively were the sole owners of the copyrights therein. Neither party has any duty whatsoever to consult with, obtain the consent of, pay or render an accounting to the other party for any use or distribution of a Contribution or derivative work thereof."

    Finally, the SCA provides that you waive any moral rights you might have:

    "To the extent allowable under applicable local laws and copyright conventions, You agree never to assert against Sun or its licensees or transferees any moral rights in Your Contribution."

    The SCA does have one sentence that purportedly benefits the Contributor. This sentence states: "Any Contribution that Sun subsequently makes available under any license will also be made available under a suitable FSF- or OSI-approved license."

    Sun would apparently have you believe that the one sentence is equivalent to a GPL or LGPL. It does not even come close. If you look at the definition of "Contribution" in paragraph 1, it only covers code you submit, not modification or derivative works, etc.:

    "1. ???Contribution??? means any source code, object code, patch, tool, sample, graphic, specification, manual, documentation, or any other material posted or submitted by You to a Project."

    Therefore, under this one sentence, Sun's only obligation is to take your verbatim Contribution that you submitted to them and publish it under some open source license. You of course could do that yourself by uploading the code to SourceForge, so this sentence has no value. It does not in any way restrict what Sun can do with your code after it has published your verbatim original contribution. Sun can take your code, make modification and create derivative works, include them in its closed source products, use them and license them to third parties, including any patent rights you had, and have no obligation to publish the modified source code. Under the SCA, Sun could at any time suspend the open source project, convert it back to a commercial closed source project, and continue using your code as if it had been the original author.

    In summary, Sun's new SCA is an even stronger grant of rights to Sun than the old JCA, and it offers nothing of substance to the Contributor or the community. It does not even come close to the GPL or LGPL. Any claims to the contrary are incorrect.
  • Sure seems like Sun found a great way to code for free (nt)

    • was supposed to be...

      Sure seems like Sun found a great way to <b>GET</b> code for free
  • OpenOffice

    Oh brother. And people bash Microsoft. If I didn't run a small company, I'd probably use OO. But for me it's better the devil I know than the one I don't. As a free man, I'm free to suffer the pains of the next better way of doing it, aka opensource. As a man tied to making sure my clients are happy, I don't have the luxury.

    How can I build something stable around open source? That's just the bottom line.... stability runs my business, not the next tweak to a program that can't communicate with my other programs the way I want.
  • Hurry up...

    I wish the people at OpenOffice would get your act together enough so that the rest of us can drop kick Microsoft Office trash off our systems.

    Now that Linux is positioned to dump on Winblows operating systems it is time to get OpenOffice ready for giving Microsoft Office (etc.) garbage the boot.