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11 November 2009, 16:20

The MySQL question - free or free-market?

by Dj Walker-Morgan

Is MySQL free in a free-market? With the European Commission's ongoing investigation, a debate over what makes free software free has emerged, ironically, centred on how money is made from free software.

The last weeks have seen two sides emerge in the debate over MySQL's future. MySQL is currently the sticking point in Oracle's planned acquisition of Sun Microsystems; although the acquisition passed the US regulators, European authorities have decided, after a preliminary investigation, to open a formal in-depth investigation into the competition issues around MySQL.

During the preliminary investigation, the free software and open source community questioned this notion of competition. The debate began as a disagreement between two MySQL alumni; in a press release Monty Widenius suggested that MySQL be sold. Widenius, as founder and original developer of MySQL wanted Oracle to divest itself of the MySQL database company. Widenius's position is that otherwise Oracle would have the ownership of the MySQL copyright and trademark, ownership which he believes is key to creating an economically viable ecosystem around MySQL and that the ownership of those rights by Oracle would create an anti-competitive situation. Widenius did not suggest who should buy MySQL, but he does have his own company, Monty Program AB, has created the Open Database Alliance and is investing in disruptive technology start-ups.

Widenius's position was countered by Märten Mickos former MySQL CEO, in a letter to Neelie Kroes, the Comissioner for Competition, he said there was no reason for the inquiry into competition and pointed out that when Oracle acquired InnoDB they increased their investment in it and made MySQL a stronger player in the market. It is believed by some that Oracle's plan for MySQL is to target it at Microsoft's SQL Server and that it wants to invest in MySQL to achieve this, but Oracle has not explicitly said this as a company.

The debate moved into the free software community as others entered the discussion. The issue at stake appears to be that Oracle would own the code to MySQL. As the database server has been monetised by dual-licensing, where MySQL AB required that any community patches to the software would have their copyright assigned to MySQL AB, the MySQL codebase would be owned by whichever company acquired it; in this case, Sun bought MySQL AB for a billion dollars in 2008 and in the process acquired the ownership of the MySQL copyright and trademarks. The code itself is licensed under the GPLv2, which means anyone can take the code and create their own fork of the code. This has traditionally been regarded as the fail-safe of dual-licensing; even if a company was to acquire and kill off a project, the GPLv2 licensed code would still be available for the community, or other vendors, to create their own fork.

But in a surprising twist, Richard Stallman signed an open letter to the European Commission from KEI and the Open Rights Group which set out a position that MySQL could not survive in this scenario as dual licensing was the mechanism used to generate revenue and that this would mean that only Oracle would be able to sell commercial licenses. In turn this would mean that no one other than Oracle could make the money required to fund development of MySQL forks. The letter concluded that Oracle should sell MySQL to a third party if they are to be allowed to acquire Sun.

This position was met with some opposition from commentators and others who find Stallman's apparent reversal on a long held position that the GPL was sufficient to protect software freedom a little odd. Support for Oracle's acquisition of Sun has come from a number of open source and free software supporters though, including Groklaw's Pamela Jones and Carlo Piana, legal counsel to the FSFE and now co-counsel to Oracle in this case. Piana says that the acquisition is probably the only alternative. Piana points out that given Oracle's apparent commitment to MySQL that the original complaints to the Comission were from "two companies whose interests collide against the persistence of a competitive pressure coming from Sun" and that they may be worried that Oracle's acquisition would reinvigorate MySQL to compete with them.

The anti-Oracle-acquisition position was joined by Karsten Gerloff, president of the FSFE, who went further, suggesting that MySQL be handed to a non-profit organisation to act as an "independent fiducary" because of possibilities that Oracle would stagnate MySQL, take legal action over patents against companies using MySQL or just withdraw the product. The idea would be that the independent body would hold all copyrights and oversee the development of MySQL. Oracle would be expected to relinquish the MySQL trademark. Gerloff cites a Sun internal document about Project Peter, a plan to migrate Oracle users to MySQL, as evidence that Oracle and MySQL are competitors. He also suggested that Oracle would enforce it's patents against free software, but it was pointed out by Sun's Simon Phipps that Oracle have been a member of the Open Invention Network (OIN) since 2007 and have pledged not to do that.

The "independent fiducary" option has been likened to strong arm tactics by some such as Kirk Wylie, who suggests that it could cause major problems for companies acquiring open source start-ups. Acquisition by an existing company is a common "exit strategy" for investors, but if that path were to be blocked by competition concerns then they may be less prepared to invest. Wylie also believes that the case has not been made that an Oracle acquisition would have competition issues; he points to the number of other open source databases on the market such as PostgreSQL, Ingres, Firebird and LucidDB and says "MySQL just isn't that special anymore".

Amazon's announcement of its Relational Database Service has also fuelled the debate over monetisation. Amazon RDS is comprised of MySQL instances running in the Amazon EC2 cloud. The launch of the service, during the anti-competition investigation, has been pointed to by some as an event that makes the anti-competition discussion moot. The suggestion is that this demonstrates that Stallman's position, that the ownership of the MySQL code is the only way to make money from MySQL, is invalid because this is a major company selling MySQL based services with no ownership of the MySQL code.

Whether that opinion will sway the Commission's position has yet to be seen. As it currently stands, Larry Ellison's Oracle is standing firm and apparently not giving any concessions to the investigation. The European Commission has launched its formal investigation and has until January 19th 2010 to report. Sun is, according to Ellison, losing $100M a month, and some fear that the company could be terminally damaged before Oracle is allowed to acquire it. If that were to be the case, it could have major ramifications throughout the free software, open source and proprietary software world. Whatever the outcome, the case is set to define the relationship between commerce, free software and competition.

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