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A time to fork

Oracle's decision to assert its ownership over Java by suing Google for infringement of patents and copyright, and its simultaneous ending of support for OpenSolaris, has had a knock-on effect on user and developer communities.

Nobody knows how the Oracle / Google case will be resolved. One of the more lucid assessments of the issues, by Carlo Daffara, comes to the conclusion that while Google may have a case for its defence, "the open source credibility of Oracle, already damaged by the OpenSolaris affair, is now destroyed" and "will be very difficult to recover".

Oracle may calculate that so many companies, including IBM, Red Hat, and Oracle itself, have such a deep rooted commitment to Java and J2EE that they will ride the storm and ensure Java's continuing predominance in the sectors of the industry where it matters; but for many contributors, Java will never be the same again.

Other communities have proved to be just as fragile. The only weapon for the defence of the users and developers that have contributed to the software stack that Oracle has inherited from Sun has been to fork the software. Forks and software foundations are the current flavour of the month, and not without reason. But, as Andy Updegrove suggests, for all the advantages of a non-profit software foundation, the fact remains that a foundation is only as good as its own terms and conditions.

Updegrove's suggestion is that, at the outset of a project, developers should "insist that corporate sponsors either set up a project as an independent legal entity, or launch a new project (with its own governing board) under the legal wing of an existing independent entity, before they agree to participate. Otherwise, community rights holders will continue to be vulnerable to wrongs they never anticipated, and that could have been easily avoided."

A licence and a promise

Despite Sun's history as a contributor and benefactor of open source software, there was always a conflict between its open source heritage and the internal and external pressures it faced to retain control of its "IP" – for example, licensing Dtrace and ZFS with licences that were incompatible with the GPL, and hence inaccessible to GNU/Linux, or obliging contributors to sign copyright assignment agreements on the code they donated to OpenOffice.org.

In each case, Sun's approach may have been understandable, but it is this "IP" that is now causing the problem for the formerly Sun-owned open source communities, and is the sting in the tail of Sun's open source legacy.

Open source is increasingly popular at the corporate level because of its success in giving access to developer communities. OpenSolaris, OpenOffice, the purchase of MySQL, and the release of Java under the GPL, can all be seen as attempts by Sun to gain presence and sway with user and developer communities, but all were tied down to some degree by Sun's unwillingness to let go of the reins.

There is more to open source than a licence and a promise, and as events have demonstrated, companies change and 'assets' can be bought and sold. Sun retained ownership and control of its projects through patents, in the case of Java, and devices such as copyright assignment, in the case of OpenOffice.org.

Copyright assignment gave Sun the right to redistribute contributed code under any other licence. Because Sun was a relatively trusted steward of open source projects, developers were relatively happy (with some notable exceptions) to sign over the ownership of their code, but as circumstances have shown, conditions may change, and even the most trusted companies may be bought or sold.

A licence means nothing if the ownership of the project has been signed over without guarantee, or segments of the framework or the code are entangled in "IP" agreements that give control to the holding company and not to a disinterested foundation or non-profit organisation.

The lasting legacy of Sun's open source projects may be the lesson that developers should be more careful about assigning ownership of code and control of the project's destiny to a third party if the project is to remain free.

See also:

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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