What rankles in open source buy-outs

What rankles in open source buy-outs

Summary: Now it's true that programmers who helped build mySQL and Zimbra don't own the project. They don't have a legal claim on the businesses their code built. But there is such a thing as moral equity.


Let's say you join a food co-op.

It's an organic green grocer that slowly adds organic soaps, spices, teas, and meals to its line.

Over time a co-op member comes up with an idea for beeswax candles, another for loofah back sponges, and maybe you add tie-dyed t-shirts to sell at the local festival.

Not only do you spend your money with Hippy Dippy Foods and More, but you invest your time. You help stock the shelves. They give you a discount on your membership, but it's the community you love.

Now let's say the board of Hippy Dippy Foods and More sells out to Whole Foods.

Everything will remain the same, they say. We'll just have more money to make more of the candles and back sponges and t-shirts. We'll make them a national brand.

OK, you say. I can accept that. I may choose to switch my volunteer times to manning the booth at the festival. I'm proud of my tie-dyed innovation and the candles make great gifts.

Then WalMart buys Whole Foods. And if you protest you're told to shut up by the local paper. It's business, you're told. You don't own the stock, you have no say. You never really did.

That's a bit how the community stakeholders at mySQL have felt, watching the project get bought by Sun and, more recently, Oracle. It may be how Zimbra clients feel, watching their software get taken over by Yahoo and, now, VMWare.

It was, let's put on a show, who's got a barn? Then, we're off to Broadway, see you in the funny papers.

Now it's true that programmers who helped build mySQL and Zimbra don't own the project. They don't have a legal claim on the businesses their code built.

But there is such a thing as moral equity. What was us is now you, and you sold out, why shouldn't I be offended, and why should I trust anyone like you again?

You got my help based on an honest copyleft license, I let myself become dependent on that goodwill, and now I'm supposed to smile because you sold out to the guy I invested so much in you to avoid?

What concerns me in this example is not so much what Oracle or VMWare may do with their asset. It's what people who have invested time and money in open source communities may now decide to do.

What's next? Wikipedia bought by the Encyclopedia Brittanica? Firefox gets gobbled by Microsoft?

Legally, the analysts telling mySQL's community to shut up are saying, yes, it could. And you couldn't say a thing about it. That's just capitalism.

It may be, just as Tom Sawyer's game to get his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence was capitalism. But when Mark Twain wrote that his sympathies weren't really with Tom. He was satirizing capitalism itself, and telling young readers to be wary of its glib promises.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Data Centers, Data Management, Open Source, Software

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  • Best post yet, Dana

    Insightful and thoughts provoking!

    The problem may be, though, that they made a
    pact with the capitalism itself.

    Both Zimbra and MySQL took money from VCs which
    helped fund their continued development. They
    took that money knowing full and well that the
    VCs are not philanthropists. The VCs were in it
    because of a potential future value of the
    company. Everyone involved knew and realized

    You could shun capitalism, saying that it
    destroys good projects such as these. But
    that's ignoring the fact that they would have
    never gotten to where they were had they not
    "sold out" to VC.

    So, capitalism was an enabler and now a
    (perhaps) a destroyer.

    You are quite right that it is an interesting
    dilemma. Food for though for the those who
    believe in OSS as an ideology (if not outright
    • I don't really get the problem

      Fork the last version, rename it to notyourSQL, and proceed. Sure, you can no longer have a dual license, but you can develop as usual. How could MySQL really die if people are interested?
      • How will you pay the developers, then?

        Relying on charity donations?

        Relying on the "community" to progress the
        product? Fat chance of that, since MySQL does
        *not* have a community of contributors, rather
        a community of <i>users</i>.

        Relying on paid support?

        You see, until they were bought by Sun, MySQL
        paid the employees using VC funds. Funds
        invested in the company with the expectation
        that it would increase in value - or somebody
        was dumb enough to pay an overprice. That would
        be Sun.

        After they were bought by Sun they started
        gobbling up Suns cash. Eventually (along with
        OOo and Java) forcing Sun to hand in the towel
        and sell out to Oracle.

        The whole time MySQL managed to sell a few
        "support" contracts - which were really
        donations from supportive admins in disguise.

        The cold reality is that there is no viable
        business model for a pure open source MySQL,
        OpenOffice, Java or Solaris. The "communities"
        are cheapskates expecting to get everything for
        free. They never contribute.

        That is why "Monty" want's to regain control of
        MySQL. So that he can make the same scam again
        and hope for another Sun. But that's not really
        important to him, you see, as long as he can
        make some VCs <i>believe</i> it will happen.

        It is indeed ironic that in these cases, closed
        proprietary software is much more fair: The
        biggest beneficiaries are also those who will
        pay the biggest license fees.

        With open source it is the opposite: The
        biggest companies can train employees to become
        self-supported. They don't need any paid
        support. They may buy a course from time to
        time - to train their support personnel.
        • Response

      • That could work, but...

        ...you'd still be playing catch up.
        The fact is that the InnoDB portion of MySQL already belongs to Oracle (they bought Innobase Oy in 2005) and it's a core function used by most implementers, so it's not like they've suffered under Oracle ownership up until now. I don't really see any reason for Oracle to "mess" with MySQL, it is their primary weapon against MS-SQL IMHO.
    • What's missing is ...

      Good article, true. However, the companies that put it into closed source, assuming no license violations, still need someone to support and manage that code, no? Will they start their own guys in on it from scracth, or are they likely to look for one of the major contributors? I don't know, but there was no mention of how they'd be able to support such ware going forward. Trash the good open source stuff, as MS, Symantec, Google, Netobjects and many others have done and you create a lump of feces on one wants.

      Besides, as long as licenses aren't violated and everything that happened was allowed under the license, what can anyone say? They did know the possibilities going in, after all.

      Like I said, I agree it's interesting.
    • Humans eh?

      We wake up, we either do something or we don't, and we go to sleep again at the end of the day.

      During our waking hours, many, many, many of the things which we are able to do are stifled by the apparent need for everything to be done only on the condition that you have paper tokens or electronic numbers as some kind of enabler.

      It's like crocheting whilst wearing furnace gloves, and the funniest part is it's actually killing the planet that makes us possible.
  • the IRS should compesate the developers

    Since the developers created a public good, and taxes were paid in the sale transactions, the government should compensate the developers for their work.
    Linux Geek
    • Not the IRS...

      If anyone should compensate the developers for the intellectual property contributed to the projects, it is either Sun or, now, Oracle. After all, every developer who contributed to MySQL (and whose contribution was accepted and merged in) has a partial ownership of the project.

      The IRS, however, has no direct part in this transaction.
      • Wrong

        MySQL AB has always been some of the most
        "closed" open source companies. To maintain
        their ability to dual license MySQL they would
        never accept outside contributions. Likewise
        with Sun and OpenOffice. They never accept
        outside contributions <i>unless</i> the
        contributor signs over <i>every right</i>,
        lock, stock and barrel, to Sun.

        Your (and Dana's) premise of a "thriving" open
        source community around these companies is
        false. <b>There never was a community of
        contributors</b>, merely one of <i>users</i>.

        Most development has been by the paid in-house
        developers. All outside contributions has been
        made with the clear consent that the
        contributor signed away every right.
    • No-one should compensate them: They were dumb enough to work for free.

      If you are dumb enough to spend all your time working for free, no-one owes you [b]anything[/b]. Most certainly not any of my tax dollars.

      Gee, I could have told you that when these idiots decided to go ABM in the first place. I am surprised that you can't figure it out by yourself though...
      • RE: They were dumb enough to work for free

        They really weren't working for free; or at least they didn't think they
        were. They are often working on creating or improving a product that
        they use, and the product is the pay. The damage here is that they could
        lose the on-going upkeep of the product or their ability to participate, or
        maybe even the future of the product.

        That said, I don't generally contribute to projects because of the lack of
        protection from this. But then again, plenty of purchased products meet
        with an untimely demise or with such dramatic change as to no longer be
        useful. Of course with those, I only lose money.
        • Then why all the crying if they can just fork it? [nt]

          • if you fork you miss out on bug fixes and testing

            forking has downsides. you may miss out on the
            main stream bug fixes and enhancements or require
            extra effort to merge them into your fork and test
            them when merged with your own changes. the main
            downside though with forking is that you loose the
            community of people who alpha or beta test the
            product who don't choose to switch to your fork.
    • IRS should compesate

      Oof! Where did THAT come from?
  • RE: What rankles in open source buy-outs

    Open Source = Free Developers for Businesses to make money on!

    Are there any more suckers out there wanting to help me with some coding? I will be sure to make sure it is an open source project that I can legally turn around and sell for a few million!
    • who about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

      if you write code for a salary then you get an
      extrinsic motivation: cash. whilst many people
      are attracted to programming because of the
      salary typically they cannot compete in the
      market place unless you have a strong intrinsic
      motivation: you love to spend long hours making
      code work.
      in the whole with opensource there is little in
      the way of cash rewards but lots of intrinsic
      reward: community kudos and doing-it-right.
      in contrast when you are coding for pay their
      are a lot of commercial factors that can remove
      the intrinsic rewards such as projects being
      cancelled or compromises to the engineering to
      meet commitments made by marketing departments.
      the up shot is that it really *isn't* about the
      pay. it really *isn't* free-as-in-free-beer. it
      is about free-as-in-freedom.
  • RE: What rankles in open source buy-outs

    I don't normally reply to these posts, but I think this one deserves a response. The people who added their expertise and code to the "open-source" code owned by someone else should have known someone else was claiming ownership of the code, and that they had no right to compensation.

    We do not want any government, especially the EU to be involved in this. If you contributed and you feel betrayed, then you have learned a valuable lesson and should be satisfied with that. Don't screw up the only real way for anyone small to compete with Microsoft just because you want to control something you readily and knowlingly gave away for free.
    • it's open source isn't it

      no one owns the code, right?
      anyone can 'fork' the project and go right on regardless of VCs, stock analysts or what not

      or am I wrong?

      • Forking

        Nothing prevents this - aside from the fact
        that mySQL has become an industry standard, and
        by forking, they're weakening the efforts they
        put into building that brand and strategy.

        Welcome to the problems of socialized ownership
        of intangible properties.

        Anything with a wide enough user base to become
        a standard can be leveraged into a profit
        making enterprise.

        Anything that can be leveraged into a
        profitable enterprise can also be used as the
        foundation for a business model.

        Anything that becomes a business model grows a
        desire to 'close the corral' - businesses don't
        want to innovate. They want to charge rent for
        work already done, while funding R&D and paying
        shareholders, and building a big wad of cash.

        Someone eventually wants to buy the business
        for the work already done - particularly if it
        eliminates a competitor, freeze development and
        charge rent indefinitely (this is called
        'leveraging the core competency' in pointy-hat-

        People who don't understand this are naive

        Most people who work in open source don't
        understand this. Or if they do, they
        understand it in a very abstract way, and are
        doing the work because it's fun.

        Since they don't own the work, they don't get
        any control over what eventually gets done with
        it, and their only option is to eventually fork
        and undermine the work they did.
        Ad Astra