Before I even start this post I am going to repeat our view that Oracle is well aware that it has little to gain from killing off MySQL and that we expect MySQL to become the scale-out database for non-transactional web applications and to compete with SQL Server in departmental deployments.
That said there has been some interesting discussion on Twitter this week in response to the European Commission’s investigation of Oracle-Sun about whether Oracle could - in theory - kill off MySQL. Here’s a Q+A explaining my view as to how Oracle could kill MySQL but probably won’t, and why MySQL AB’s choice of dual licensing and the GPL has come back to haunt Monty Widenius.
Q. Oracle can’t kill MySQL even if it wants to, because its open source. Right?
A. Not really. The existing code will always be under the GPL but Oracle is under no obligation to release future developments under the GPL. It could theoretically continue to develop MySQL as a proprietary product, leaving the GPL version behind. Other developers and vendors could take the GPL code and continue its development, but they would be limited in their commercial exploitation of it.
Q. How so?
A. As Monty Program AB Chief Community and Communications Officer Kurt von Finck explained to Ars Technica, “MySQL’s licensing model gives the copyright holder a higher level of control than the rest of the community and the exclusive ability to provide certain kinds of products and services that third-party vendors cannot.” As the sole owner of the MySQL copyright Oracle would have the ability to decide who could license the code commercially for integration with non-GPL code, for example.
Q. Who does that impact?
A. As previously discussed, Oracle would theoretically have the ability to impact products that enable MySQL to better compete with Oracle’s database products, such as ScaleDB, Tokutek, Infobright and Kickfire.
Q. But that is a commercial contract issue isn’t it? What does it have to do with open source?
A. True, this is not really an open source issue but a copyright issue. However, the combination of GPL and copyright ownership also impacts the ability to fork - one of the apparent benefits of open source. Monty Program is free to build a business around MySQL but its commercial opportunities are limited. As Von Finck told Are Technica: “Anything we do will have to be GPLed. Oracle does not have this constraint.”
Q. That’s a bit tough on Monty Program isn’t it?
A. Not really, since its founder also created MySQL and was a member of MySQL AB, the company that decided to use the GPL and dual licensing to enjoy the benefits of the open source distribution model while restricting the ability of would-be forkers to compete. Oracle would simply being enjoying the same benefits of copyright ownership as MySQL AB.
Q. So it’s impossible to create a fork of MySQL then?
A. No, but it is impossible to create a fork that can be integrated with non-GPL code (or at least it appears to be - ScaleDB’s Mike Hogan has argued that it can be done via an open source intermediary layer, Monty Widenius believes vendors would need a commercial MySQL license). A company would be able to fork MySQL without the commercial opportunities however - Monty Program already has.
Q. So commercial licensing isn’t necessary to create a business around MySQL?
A. Not necessarily no. Non-GPL licensing drove the bulk of MySQL AB’s early revenue but, according to the company’s former CEO, Marten Mickos, in later years more money came from support subscriptions. A company like Red Hat, for example, could therefore take the code and create a pure open source subscription business - but it would have to invest in hiring the best MySQL developers and support engineers to differentiate it from the other MySQL support providers, and it wouldn’t be able to use the MySQL brand.
A. Because Oracle owns the MySQL trademark. Hence Monty Program’s version of MySQL is MariaDB. This is also an impediment to the ability to fork, although not as significant as copyright in my opinion. MariaDB already has a significant profile.
Q. What about Drizzle, that’s under the BSD license isn’t it? And copyright for contributions are owned by the contributors.
A. That is true of community contributions, according to the FAQ. But according to the discussion in this thread, the copyright for the majority of the code is owned by Sun and only Sun can sell non-GPL licenses for it. When Oracle acquires Sun, it will assume that ownership. Arguably, if the Drizzle developers wanted to prevent Sun/Oracle from selling non-GPL licenses, they should have used the GPL for community contributions along with distributed copyright ownership.
Q. How so?
Because then Sun/Oracle would have to get the permission of the copyright owners to offer it under a non-GPL license. It has no such requirements for BSD code.
Q. How has this happened? I thought the right to fork was a key benefit of open source.
A. It is, unless the license is GPL and the copyright for the code is wholly owned by a single vendor or individual, in which case the vendor or individual has rights that are not available to would-be forkers.
Q. So is this situation unique to MySQL?
A. So far. At least in terms of the fact that the project is about to be acquired by a rival, and the creator of the original project is trying to create his own fork - and would apparently like to have the same commercial opportunities as the copyright owner. But this could theoretically happen to any project licensed under the GPL where the copyright for the code is wholly owned by a single vendor.
Q. So could Oracle kill off MySQL or not?
A. The community project, no. The commercial product, yes - if it wanted to.
Q. And does it want to?
A. As stated above, our view is that Oracle is well aware that it has little to gain from killing off MySQL and that we expect MySQL to become the scale-out database for non-transactional web applications and to compete with SQL Server in departmental deployments.
A. If Oracle is planning to invest in the long-term future of MySQL it could put an end to this speculation by at least hinting at what it plans to do with it, as it has with its advert regarding Sun’s hardware and operating system.
Q. Assuming Oracle did want to kill MySQL as a commercial product - can an open source community project survive a hostile acquisition?
A. We considered this question in a recent 451 Group report (clients only). One of the problems with testing this theory is that there have been very few, if any, hostile mergers or acquisitions of open source software vendors to learn from. There are some clues from looking at the history of commercial open source vendors that have ceased trading, leaving the open source projects to live on via SourceForge.
A. When Mindquarry, shut down the firm’s founders were all hired by Day Software, and stated that as long as there was an active community, they intended to continue their commitment to the software. SourceForge statistics for the project indicate that it has been inactive since the day it was registered. Similarly, the Ringside Social Application Server software may have outlived its corporate sponsor, which closed its doors in October 2008, but it has not been updated since July 2008, according to SourceForge statistics. On the other hand, openQRM continues to be an active project with more than 35 developers led by maintainer Matt Rechenburg, despite the closure of Qlusters in July 2008.
Q. What differentiates openQRM from Mindquarry and Ringside?
A. A committed project leader and an active community of developers. We would expect MySQL (or MariaDB) to enjoy both, and at a scale that dwarfs that of openQRM.
Q. This is all very theoretical.
A. Yes it is, but it highlights the importance of thinking through the long-term implications of licensing and copyright assignment. If you don’t want to end up in the situation faced by Monty Program, don’t go GPL with full copyright assignment.
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