JBoss downplays open-source code 'plagiarism'

The Java server maker is arguing that significant JBoss code has made its way into an Apache server project, but says it is not planning a SCO-style solution

JBoss Group, the developer of the JBoss open-source application server, on Wednesday sought to downplay the significance of a letter its lawyers accusing the Apache open-source group of plagiarism.

In the letter, which Jim Jagielski of the Apache Software Foundation posted online, JBoss lawyers alleged that code from the application server had made its way into Geronimo, an application server currently under development.

"It has come to our attention that portions of the Geronimo program appear to be virtually identical or substantially similar to JBoss program source code," wrote David Byer of law firm Testa, Hurwitz and Thibeault. "In addition to examples of what appears to be direct copying of JBoss source code in the Geronimo code base, JBoss has observed a significant number of architectural similarities, similar naming conventions, and other indications that portions of Geronimo may constitute derivative works of JBoss source code."

Byer accepted that an JBoss code copied into the Geronimo project "may have inadvertently and without the ASF's knowledge," and requested that measures be taken "immediately to remedy any such examples of copying".

In response, Jagielski issued a call to all Geronimo developers to ensure that any code is not copied from JBoss. "Recall, also, that if someone is the original author of the code and donated that code to JBoss," he added, "they can still donate the original code to the ASF (unless they signed some sort of exclusivity agreement). Original authors maintain ownership."

Speaking to ZDNet UK, Sacha Labourey, general manager of the JBoss Group, later sought to downplay the significance of the letter, but said that code plagiarism is a problem that can affect all software, regardless of the licence under which it is issued. "Open source is at critical moment today because it is becoming more and more important in the enterprise, and so it is increasingly important to be serious in the open-source world," he said.

"We knew a project had been started at Apache and we had two or three old coders from JBoss in that project. They left and started Geronimo and that's fine, but we saw that they took some deep code -- really deep code in the JBoss architecture."

There are two problems with this, said Labourey. First, it moves the code from the Lesser GNU Public License (LGPL) which JBoss uses, to the Apache licence. Second, he said, there is the problem of copyright: "They removed the original name and put their name there."

It can be a simple matter to correct code plagiarism, Labourey said -- a criticism of the far-reaching actions pursued by the SCO Group against Unix and Linux vendors who SCO claims are distributing operating systems that contain code to which it owns the rights.

"For us it simply requires a letter and nothing more. We are expecting that Apache will correct it," said Labourey.

JBoss' example, and that provided by SCO, should not be taken to mean that open-source software is more likely to include plagiarised code, he said. "Open source is no different from proprietary software, but with open source any plagiarism is obvious. If I develop proprietary software though, I can take some code and copy it into my application and nobody will see it. It doesn't mean that the problem is less likely to happen -- just that you are less likely to detect it. What can you do? Hope people are smarter. It's a little bit sad that this happens."

The LGPL used by JBoss, like other open-source licences, does have the benefit that people can take the code and develop it further, so long as they respect the licence terms, Labourey said. "If you want to do your own JBoss you start your own fork and that's OK."