Sun criticizes popular open-source license

Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz applauds the open-source software realm but takes jabs at the GPL.

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3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwartz on Tuesday proclaimed ardent support for the open-source software realm but criticized the General Public License, a widely used foundation of the programming movement.

The GPL governs Linux and countless other projects in the free and open-source software arena. But a key tenet of the license creates a situation that amounts to economic imperialism, Schwartz argued at the Open Source Business Conference here.

Naturally, Schwartz presented an alternative, Sun's Community Development and Distribution License, or CDDL, an open-source license that's a variant of the earlier Mozilla Public License (MPL). Sun has begun releasing its Solaris source code under the CDDL in a project called OpenSolaris. Solaris is now free, though Sun sells support.

Schwartz singled out the GPL provision that says source code may be mixed with other code only if the other code also is governed by the GPL. That provision is intended to create a body of software that must remain liberated from proprietary constraints. But Schwartz said that some people he's spoken to dislike it because it precludes them from using open-source software as a foundation for proprietary projects.

"Economies and nations need intellectual property (IP) to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I've talked to developing nations, representatives from academia and manufacturing companies that had begun to incorporate GPL software into their products, then...found they had an obligation to deliver their IP back into the world," Schwartz said.

The GPL purports to have freedom at its core, but it imposes on its users "a rather predatory obligation to disgorge all their IP back to the wealthiest nation in the world," the United States, where the GPL originated, Schwartz said. "If you look at the difference between the license we elected to use and GPL, there are no obligations to economies or universities or manufacturers that take the source code and embed it in (their own) code."

The GPL is being modernized, but its creator, Richard Stallman, has said the core tenet isn't going to change. And that tenet hasn't deterred programmers so far: The GPL is used in 68 percent of the thousands of projects tracked by the Freshmeat indexing site.

Representatives of the Free Software Foundation, which oversees the GPL, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sun is trying to ally itself with the open-source programming movement as part of a strategy to turn around its ailing fortunes. The company's revenue and stock price have remained largely flat in recent years despite a recovery in Sun's core market, powerful server computers at the heart of corporate networks.

Open-source software, despite being available for free, will help Sun financially, Schwartz said. "We're expecting more revenue," he said, citing historical parallels with the company's support of the now universal TCP/IP networking standard and the widely used Java software.

Schwartz also took on critics--and there are several--who have objected to Sun's refusal to release Java as open-source software. "Our refusal has nothing to do with Sun being proprietary and everything to do with wanting to keep Java from forking," he said, mentioning that Microsoft is not among the 900 companies that govern the technology's future via the Java Community Process.

One Java critic is Linux seller Red Hat, whose operating system competes directly against Sun's Solaris. Schwartz has said more than once that Sun has Red Hat squarely in its competitive crosshairs.

Tuesday, though, Schwartz tried to present a more collegial view.

"There is a community of communities in the open-source world. The open-sourcing of Solaris just increases the number and diversity of the community," he said. "It's not about being a predator on one set of people; it's about validating open source."

Schwartz also predicted that companies that pledge support for open-source software but that keep their own products proprietary will eventually be exposed as hypocrites and fall by the wayside

He mentioned no specific targets for this accusation, but Sun has leveled a similar criticism at IBM. Its WebSphere, Tivoli and Lotus software remains proprietary despite Big Blue's programming help with Linux and creation of the open-source Eclipse programming tools.