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News

Strip mining of OpenOffice.org

Oracle's donation of the OpenOffice.org to the Apache Software Foundation does no favours for the users or developers of open office suites, says Richard Hillesley…

Speaking at the time of Sun’s decision to release Java under the GNU General Public License (GPL), Marc Fleury, the founder of JBoss, claimed that “IBM reacted negatively” to the Sun announcement because “IBM’s approach to open source is what we call ‘strip mining’, which is to let the open source community do things – then IBM comes and packages them, adds proprietary code, and markets the result,” and concluded that “they have this dual strategy of proprietary products and low-end open source.”

These remarks find an echo in Oracle’s decision to donate the code of OpenOffice.org (OO.o) to the Apache Foundation. Oracle could have donated the code to The Document Foundation and LibreOffice, the free implementation of OpenOffice.org, but didn’t. Oracle has no interest in maintaining an open source office suite, but IBM does have an interest, and has been very public in its support for Oracle’s move.

One of the reasons for IBM’s advocacy of Apache licensing for OpenOffice is that IBM includes the bulk of OpenOffice.org code in Lotus Symphony. Under Sun’s stewardship of OO.o IBM was able to re-use OO.O code in Lotus Symphony – even though the code was licensed under the LGPLv3 – because ownership of the code was assigned to Sun, and copyright assignment gave Sun the right to redistribute contributed code under any other licence. Free software licenses depend upon the framework of copyright law. Copyright depends upon the ownership of the code, and ownership can be re-assigned. Re-assignment of copyright can be used for positive ends when assigned to a non-profit foundation, but can also be used to render the purpose of a copyleft licence null and void.

IBM is unable to re-use LibreOffice patches in Lotus Symphony because the Document Foundation doesn’t use copyright assignment, and LibreOffice code belongs to the individual developers.

Apache licensing is permissive and allows an end user to take the code, repackage and relicense it, and pass it on in any form they wish without any obligation to feed code changes back to the community. IBM is allowed to re-license and re-use OpenOffice.org code that was originally written against the LGPLv3 in its proprietary implementation of Lotus Symphony.

We now have two implementations of the same code and two communities working to different licensing regimes, and the outcome is potentially divisive and bad for everyone except IBM.

The attraction of open source to corporate enterprise is that it gives access to communities of users and developers who brings with them reductions in cost, collaborative opportunities, software libraries, and opportunities for high quality input from all kinds of sources.

Open source also reduces the cost of development of commodity components which have a secondary usefulness to the enterprise. The most obvious manifestations of this are projects such as the Linux kernel project. GNU/Linux reduces development costs and encourages open standards – providing an enterprise level operating system that scales from mobile to mainframe.

Open standards are useful because they reduce barriers to entry for technologies that were ‘not invented here’. Corporations, however, tend to be in favour of proprietary standards when they operate in their favour, and it follows that very few corporations take a consistent stance in standards committees, just as there are companies that make generous contributions to free software and also enforce software patents.

It is the nature of corporate culture that the primary objective is to maximise the return on investment for shareholders and to take an unsentimental view of open source components, and communities.

Fleury’s take on this was that strip mining of open source “is taking open source software built by a community and ‘Bluewashing’ or ‘Blending’ within proprietary, closed source offerings; forking/changing the open source code as needed in the process. The community does not benefit from this, but … shareholders”, which he identified with IBM and BEA, JBOSS’s main competitors, “absolutely benefit.”

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