A horrible, horrible headline for an extremely interesting story: RMS is amongst one of those who has signed his name to a letter to the Commissioner for Competition and Director General Competition of the EU that the Oracle-Sun merger should not take place due to the harm that it would do to MySQL. I saw this via Joe Brockmeier’s posting on the subject, in which he reads the letter as essentially saying that the GPL is not good enough to protect MySQL – which I think is inferring the wrong idea from what’s written.
What’s interesting here is that this is, definitively, the best exposition of the difference between “software license” and “business model” that you could get. The letter is not saying the license isn’t good enough; it’s a commentary on the business model. Secondarily, it’s a commentary on the difficulty of moving from a GPLv2-only license to a GPLv3 one, but that is treated somewhat as the lesser issue (or, at least, one with greater effects in the future rather than now).
Of important note, and I think the main way this is being misread, is that this letter isn’t about GPL’d projects: this is specifically about MySQL. What they are saying is that MySQL as a business has worked on a “dual source” model – that’s how the development has been funded, that’s how the community is set up, and those are the social norms. If that “dual source” model is shut down, that means MySQL needs to transition to some other way of funding the development and/or reduce the development occurring. This letter rightly points out the risks that development would slow/stop, and the fundamental change to this model risk killing the project.
Joe says, “Asking that a governmental body preclude the sale of a company to another because it will cease or curtail its development of a Free Software project seems unreasonable”. I somewhat agree, but again, that’s not what the letter is actually asking – it says “should block Oracle’s acquisition of MySQL”. The EU have the power to do that, and I think it’s a sensible measure. MySQL is a business which can survive on its own (at least on past performance; although many key people left during Sun’s period of ownership), and Oracle quite clearly pose a competitive risk in this area. I think the letter elucidates why brilliantly.
Update: Simon Phipps (of Sun) has posted his thoughts on this letter too, and I think makes exactly the same mistake Joe did: conflating the issue of freedom with success. The things which make software free are not the same things which make development rock or a product successful, and vice-versa.
Of course, it is true to say that an unsuccessful but free project is of very little help to the community, but saying “lack of dual-licensing dollars will hinder MySQL development” is not the same as saying “GPLv2 protection is not enough to make something free”. The issue is one of commercial success, not freedom – but of course, this does help put to bed the lie that if you are pro-free software (staunchly so, in RMS’ case) you are ignorant of or ambivalent toward commercial realities.
Update 2: Matt Asay also weighs in, and somewhat predictably also confuses the issue of freedom with success.