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A private agreement

At the same time, IBM had its own interest in the code. Early versions of Lotus Symphony were based on OpenOffice 1.1.4, which was the last release to be dual-licensed by Sun. IBM modified the code, which it had no obligation to release back to the community, and clearly chose to do this precisely because the SISSL licence allowed it to do so.

Evidently Sun took exception to this and dropped SISSL in September 2005. By the time of the first public release of Lotus Symphony, IBM was using three year old OpenOffice code. Subsequent versions of OpenOffice.org were released under the LGPL, which inhibited the inclusion of the code in IBM's derivative works.

IBM logo But all this changed in 2007, when IBM formally announced that it was joining the OOo Project, and in November 2008 it announced without explanation that it was using OpenOffice version 3.x code in future releases of Lotus Symphony; this suggested that the code had been relicensed to IBM under a private agreement with Sun.

Off the hook

The balance of power changed when Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems and it became obvious that OpenOffice.org was surplus to Oracle's requirements. Oracle had the option, but no incentive, to follow the community and donate the code to LibreOffice and the budding Document Foundation (TDF); the latter has a clear roadmap for the establishment of a developer-driven foundation.

But Oracle also had an obligation to honour Sun's agreements with IBM, which allowed IBM to re-use OpenOffice.org code in its proprietary offerings without releasing changes back to the community – and the chosen vehicle for this process was the Apache Software Foundation.

The terms of the agreement between Sun and IBM have never been revealed, but it can be assumed that it had some years to run and allowed IBM to re-use privately licensed versions of OpenOffice.org code in its proprietary offerings. There has been a suggestion that Oracle offered IBM the chance to buy the code and to takeover Sun's Hamburg StarOffice team, but IBM balked at this, and the donation of the code to Apache was IBM's suggestion.

The Document Foundation logo The LibreOffice developers, who included "just about anyone of note in the OpenOffice.org community", tried to make a compromise with IBM by dual licensing the code under both a copyleft and a liberal licence, which would allow IBM the right to re-use the code, yet preserve the integrity of the project.

There was even a conference call on 28 April between LibreOffice developers and an IBM team to discuss the possibilities, and according to Italo Vignoli, the only significant objection voiced by IBM was that The Document Foundation was based in Germany. Nonetheless, within minutes of Oracle's announcement of its decision to donate the code to the Apache Foundation, a rash of linked blogs from IBM personnel appeared praising the Apache Software Foundation and Oracle's donation of the OpenOffice.org 'assets' to the Foundation.

The implication was that IBM was privy to the decision. The release of the code to the Apache Software Foundation gives some assurance of community and governance without incurring any obligations from IBM. IBM is able to re-use the code within the terms of the licence, and Oracle is off the hook, with no further obligations to IBM or the code.

Intrigue and ballyhoo

IBM's role in the rise of Apache OpenOffice has been intriguing, not just because of a desire to re-use OpenOffice code in a proprietary setting, but the combative stance taken by IBM personnel on the Apache mailing lists and elsewhere – signalling a clear aversion to copyleft and the LibreOffice branch of the code.

This led Simon Phipps to ask Rob Weir of IBM "why you feel so amazingly negative about a project that has succeeded at creating a fork the community actually wanted and which was so willing to work with IBM they actually prepared for it."

The twin issues are those of community and licensing. The Apache licence suits IBM for all the obvious reasons, and allows the most control for the minimum consequences. As a side issue there is a hint that the various acrimonies around Java may have played a role in the controversy – if only to remind everybody that there are other issues at stake.

Back in 2008 Doug Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM's Lotus Division, said: "We think that OpenOffice has quite a bit of potential and would love to see it move to the independent foundation that was promised in the press release back when Sun originally announced OpenOffice. We think that there are plenty of existing models of communities, [such as] Apache and Eclipse, that we can look to as models of open governance, copyright aggregation and licensing regimes that would make the code much more relevant to a much larger set of potential contributors and implementers of the technology....", the inference being that a liberal licensing regime would encourage participation from proprietary vendors, and the ability to embed open source code in proprietary offerings will result in a greater willingness to contribute code back to the project.

Since the beginning, issues of governance, licensing and community have been problematic for OpenOffice.org, but not always for the reasons identified by IBM.

Jeremy Allison made the telling observation that the main issue for IBM is "copyleft vs. non-copyleft licensing" and noted that "I personally believe the LGPLv3 copyleft license is a better choice for this codebase, rather than the Apache one... based around my own experiences on Samba, where copyleft is one of the only ways to break into a monopoly-dominated market."

Next: The Harmony mess

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