Open Source

Oracle wins the 2010 Open Source Enemies Prize

Oracle has demonstrated a relentless dedication to damaging open source software projects to the best of its ability in 2010, but it was not the only enemy of open source software.

The year 2010 has seen a number of enemies of open source software making waves. After thinking about it long and hard — about five minutes or so — I have determined the proper winner of the 2010 Open Source Enemies Prize, though some other contenders deserve a Dishonorable Mention.

Winner: Oracle Corporation

Larry Ellison, one of Oracle Corporation's three founders, helms the software vendor as its CEO. On 27 January 2010, Oracle announced its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, at that time the corporate steward of a number of prominent software projects that had — to one degree or another — been distributed under the auspices of open source licensing. Among these are:

  • Java: Sun Microsystems has been the copyright holder for the core Java software ecosystem since its creation. Over time, the Java Development Kit and its prerequisites have been increasingly released under open source licenses, though even in the last days before Oracle acquired Sun one had to agree to a decidedly non-open end user license agreement to install the Java platform.
  • MySQL: One of the most widely deployed SQL DBMSes on the planet, possibly running second place only to SQLite, MySQL is the darling of uncountable masses of open source PHP-based Web applications. It is the M in the all-too-familiar LAMP acronym. Sun Microsystems acquired MySQL AB, which means that when Oracle acquired Sun it got the MySQL codebase and trademark as well.
  • Sun created an open source community around a derivative of its StarOffice suite, called That application has become a major open source "household name", and perhaps the biggest effective competitor to the otherwise dominant Microsoft Office suite. It has also tended to leverage Sun's Java technology heavily.
  • OpenSolaris: The flagship software of the Sun Microsystems hardware platforms, Solaris, was turned into an open source project by prepending the word Open and releasing the whole shebang primarily under the CDDL. While some components of the official OS distribution are not open source, a fully open source installation of the system could be cobbled together. Unlike Linux-based systems and even BSD Unix systems, OpenSolaris is the basis for a complete, open source SysV UNIX, complete with certification for using the all-capitals UNIX trademark.

Oracle has never had much of a positive reputation in the open source community at large. The relationship of the corporation with that community has been as rocky and contentious as Microsoft's, in many ways, though less prominently so in the news until 2010. It has offered its own distribution of Linux, but then essentially smothered the popularity of the project in the crib through mismanagement — if the popularity of an Oracle branded Linux distribution was ever the real goal of the effort.

During 2010, some interesting developments have caught the attention of the open source community:

  • On 12 August, Oracle announced a lawsuit naming Google Inc. as the defendant over patents pertaining to the Java VM. This lawsuit for some recalls echoes of a Sun lawsuit against Microsoft some years ago, but in this case the suit is targeting an open source reimplementation of the JVM for the (mostly) open source Android smartphone OS. Google's implementation is called Dalvik, and Oracle's suit may ultimately result in the legal precedent that allows Oracle to maintain an iron grip on all "open" source development of Java-related technologies for the foreseeable future.
  • In something of a one-two punch, the Google lawsuit was followed up on 13 August, the very next day, by a leaked internal memo containing references to plans to discontinue the OpenSolaris project and disbanding its community. A fork of OpenSolaris core components has continued open development under the name Illumos, and seems to be free of troubling patents in Oracle's hands so far. Still, the big news at present on the OpenSolaris front appears to be Oracle's attempt to destroy any open source community built around the core of the OS. Only time will tell how fully it has succeeded.
  • Several developers formed the Open Document Foundation, soliciting (and receiving) support from prominent corporations with an interest in open source software development, including Canonical, Google, Novell, and Red Hat. The intention was to create a largely independent stewardship for the open source software, but Oracle not only did not lend its support to the organization, but effectively eliminated its original purpose for existence by refusing to part with its trademark interest in the name. The result is that the Open Document foundation had to fork to create the LibreOffice project. Adding insult to injury, Oracle declared that involvement in the ODF and the LibreOffice project constitutes a conflict of interest for Oracle employees, and the former developers were told to resign from one or the other of the ODF and Oracle. As of 1 November, 33 developers handed Oracle management their letters of resignation.
  • The Apache Software Foundation has been deeply involved in the Java Community Process, and developed its Apache Harmony implementation, distributed under the copyfree Apache License. Oracle, through the JCP, stated its intent to eliminate the provisions that allowed Apache's alternative implementation to be distributed under the terms of an open source license, effectively declaring war on Apache Harmony. In response to this action, and the subsequent confirmation in December that the Java Specification Participation Agreement would effectively disallow open source alternative implementations, Apache withdrew from the JCP as it promised it would when this issue first came to a head in November.
  • A number of MySQL forks have been in progress since before the Oracle acquisition of Sun, but the urgency of these projects has certainly increased in 2010 as news of Oracle's behavior toward its acquired open source software projects has been perceived as becoming increasingly hostile. Some believe that a de facto end to the MySQL project at Oracle is just around the corner, and are just waiting for that shoe to drop. Despite this, there is little news of popular open source PHP-based Web application projects migrating from MySQL to one of its forks or to alternative SQL DBMS architectures such as PostgreSQL.

Dishonorable Mentions

The FBI: On 11 December, Theo de Raadt surprised the open source world by announcing to the openbsd-tech mailing list that he had received an email alleging backdoor vulnerabilities in OpenBSD's networking software. Specifically, he quoted the text of an email from former NETSEC CTO Gregory Perry wherein he claimed that, because a nondisclosure agreement has expired, he was free to inform the OpenBSD project head that the FBI had paid NETSEC and several of its developers to make contributions to the IPsec implementation for the security-focused open source OS.

The potential fallout of this announcement is not yet certain by any means, though it is quickly blowing up into quite a storm of scandal in open source communities. The OpenBSD core developers are surely working overtime to verify these allegations; so far, nobody is quite certain how much truth they contain.

The IIPA: In other news, the IIPA — an umbrella group for copyright industry lobbies like the MPAA and RIAA — actually petitioned the US government to add nations whose governments recommend use of open source software for inclusion in its Special 301 Report Watch List. This essentially identifies a list of nations considered by the United States Trade Representative to be enemies of capitalism, just because countries like Indonesia and Brazil have made recommendations to their own government agencies to consider the use of open source software.

Indonesia was actually placed on the USTR's Special 301 Report Priority Watch List (emphasis added), after the IIPA urged it to do so merely for making a non-binding recommendation. An argument could be made that the truly immediate enemy of open source here is the USTR, because it did in fact add such countries to its watchlists as anti-capitalist regimes, but the IIPA definitely deserves recognition given that its sole reason for making such recommendations to the US government's Trade Representative was the use of open source software.

Other notable contestants

Microsoft, the perennial favorite poster boy for corporate antipathy toward open source software, has continued to engage in its somewhat schizophrenic behavior toward open source software. On one hand it creates new software under open source licenses, and even creates new licenses that get certified as open source compliant by the Open Source Initiative, and at the same time threatens open source developers with lawsuits, makes claims about the inferiority of open source software development models, and generally acts like exactly the enemy of open source that is its image in the open source community. Compared to the concerted efforts of Oracle and the revelations of possible FBI involvement in undermining OpenBSD security, however, Microsoft's behavior in 2010 has been decidedly lackluster on this front. Richard Stallman, regarded by many as the titular ruler of the open source community, is simultaneously regarded by many others as the cancer at the community's heart, an accidental enemy eating at it from within. His occasional PR disasters include things like eating toejamb while giving public speeches, attacking the efforts of open source software developers and advocates who do not toe the GNU and FSF line, and generally causing problems while simultaneously soaking up accolades. His status as an enemy of open source software is certainly subject to argument, however, as the majority in the open source community tends to think of him as a legendary, heroic figure, or at least a harmlessly benevolent crank. Furthermore, though Stallman's FSF and the associated SFLC have done so in the past, these organizations have not made waves with obvious threats of legal action against small open source software projects in 2010. Autodesk, Inc. won a lawsuit against a private reseller of its AutoCAD software, under the theory that nobody has a right to resell software if such a right was not explicitly granted in licensing. The specific phrasing of the court decision could potentially have a chilling effect on certain corporately stewarded open source projects as well, as discussed in the article, "Court decision clamps down on our rights to software that we 'own'." As chilling as this ruling is, however, its direct effect on open source software is uncertain at worst so far, and quite possibly positive overall. Perhaps Autodesk should receive an award for being its own worst enemy in 2010, instead. Whether further appeals will reverse this decision or not is uncertain, but news has not been forthcoming since September.

Congratulations are in order

Other contestants exist, of course, but the winner must truly be both noteworthy and noted. Anyone who does not spring immediately to mind for pretty much everyone who pauses to think about the matter is not suited to stealing the prize from Oracle this year.

Congratulations, Oracle: you have truly earned the dubious distinction of being one of open source software's greatest enemies.


Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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