Ditching Copyleft to Compete with a Fork?

Wednesday 1 June 2011 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I was disturbed today to read that Oracle will seek to relicense all OpenOffice code under the Apache-2.0 license and move OpenOffice into the Apache Software Foundation.

I've written recently about how among the permissive licenses, my favorite is clearly the Apache License 2.0. However, I think that one should switch from a copyleft license to a permissive one only in rare circumstances and with the greatest of care.

Obviously, in this case, I oppose Oracle's relicense of OpenOffice.org under Apache-License-2.0. It is probably obvious why I feel that way, but I shall explain nonetheless, just in case. I'm going to mostly ignore the motives for doing so, which I think are obvious: Oracle (and IBM, who are quoted in support of this move) for their own reasons don't like The Document Foundation fork (LibreOffice) of OpenOffice.org. This is a last-ditch effort by IBM and Oracle to thwart the progress of that fork, which has been reported as quite successful and many distributions have begun to adopt LibreOffice. (Even non-software sites sites like Metafilter have users discussing changing to LibreOffice .)

Anyway, as you might suspect, I'm generally against the idea of relicensing from a copyleft to a non-copyleft license in most situations. In fact, I generally take the stance that you should go with the strictest copyleft possible unless there's a strong reason not to. This is well-argued in RMS' essay on the LGPL itself, and I won't repeat those arguments here. Frankly, if I were picking a license for OpenOffice.org and/or LibreOffice from start, I'd pick AGPLv3-or-later, because of the concern that it could be turned into a Google Docs-like web service. But, what I'd do is obviously irrelevant.

OpenOffice.org was put out under LGPLv3, and that was its license for some time. LGPL was presumably chosen to allow proprietary plugins to OpenOffice.org. That might be useful and perhaps a reasonable trade-off decision, since one of the goals of the project is to woo users away from Microsoft's tools which presumably permit proprietary plugins too. Thus, an argument can be made that the situation is vaguely analogous to the C Library situation that inspired LGPL's creation.

But, what does a change from a weak copyleft like LGPLv3 to a fully permissive license do? Specifically, it allows not only proprietary plugins using the OpenOffice.org's defined plugin interfaces, but also for any sort of plugin that reaches into OpenOffice.org code in any way. Even worse, a permissive license allows for direct integration of OpenOffice.org into larger proprietary systems that might offer other desktop suite applications hitherto unimplemented in Free Software.

It's my belief that this license change, if successful in its goals, may help foster a bit of a tragedy of the commons for the core codebase. The codebase is already well known for being somewhat unwieldy and time-consuming to learn. Those who take the time to learn it, but who aren't Free Software enthusiasts, may quickly decide that it's better for them to use that rare knowledge to proprietarize the codebase rather than contribute to the public Free Software versions. The LGPLv3 currently keeps such developers “honest”; the Apache-License-2.0 will not.

Perhaps most importantly, the major consequence to consider is the the ultimate impact on the LibreOffice fork. To consider that impact, we have to look at the instigators of the relicense. IBM and Oracle both now will have a vested interest in maintaining a “barely adequate” public Apache-2.0-licensed codebase while keeping the best stuff in their proprietary versions. OpenOffice.org has actually always suffered from this very tragedy, but historically the regime was held up by mandatory copyright assignment to Oracle (and a semi-exclusive proprietary license from Oracle to IBM) rather than a permissive license. On the surface, then, this seems subtly like the kind of improvement I've written about before — namely — at least a public permissive license puts everyone on equal footing, whereas copyleft with a single for-profit proprietary relicensor gives special powers to the for-profit.

And, frankly, but for the existence of LibreOffice, I think I probably would have concluded that an Apache-2.0 relicense of OpenOffice.org was the lesser of two evils. However, LibreOffice's very existence and momentum turns those two evils into a false dichotomy. Specifically, there's now a third alternative: LibreOffice is a vibrant, open, easy-to-contribute-to, non-copyright-assigned LGPLv3'd codebase now. In that community, the LGPLv3 is the shared and equal agreement; no one has special rights to the code outside of LibreOffice's license. Free Software communities, in fact, always rely on an equitable shared agreement to assure good governance and project health.

Actually, relicensing part of the codebase out from under LibreOffice may actually be the most insidious attack Oracle and IBM could make on the project. Unilateral relicense is the single most destabilizing action you can take against a Free Software community, particularly if the relicense comes from wholly outside the community. Indeed, in my time at various copyright-holding Free Software organizations, I've seen situations where I was helping support a relicensing effort by the copyright holder. In every case, I've seen leaders who could have done a unilateral relicense chose to first consult the community before taking the action to ensure that there weren't any key community members who dissented. Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it's the correct action to take, and Free Software leaders know this well; that's why they very rarely act unilaterally on anything.

Meanwhile, in this situation today, we have a copyright holder (Oracle) whose primary goal in relicensing is, in fact, to cause the outcome that Free Software leaders seek to avoid; Oracle is relicensing to undermine a successful Free Software project that relies on its copyrighted code.

Nevertheless, I'm not too worried. I believe the LibreOffice community is strong and grows stronger every day. Since their license is LGPLv3, and they continue to add new code, the fact that most of the underlying code is suddenly available under Apache-2.0 license may matter a lot today, but it will matter less and less with each passing day of new commits under LGPLv3.

In fact, I hope the LibreOffice folks will use this relicense to their advantage. Specifically, I suggest they take an Apache-2.0 license of Oracle's code, which is an LGPLv3-compatible license, and relicense the whole project to LGPLv3-or-later0, so they have an easy way (years from now) to switch to LGPLv4, GPLv3, or AGPLv4 if they want to. (BTW, they already have an easy way to switch to GPLv3, since LGPLv3 permits this, and even to AGPLv3 thereafter (via GPLv3§13).)

Note finally that there is one other benefit of this action: according to TDF, some OpenOffice.org code that had previously been proprietary is coming with the Apache-2.0-licensed code dump. This alone may make it all worthwhile, and given the points I make above, I think the ultimate outcome, long term, will be all positive for the LGPL'd LibreOffice codebase.

(I'd like note finally that I'm not the only one to point out that Oracle's action would be different if LibreOffice didn't exist. Sean Michael Kerner said something similar.)

Update (on 2011-06-02): This comment on the Apache/OpenOffice issue by my friend Jeremy Allison was so well written that I felt compelled to update this blog post with it. He's made the comment on the blog of Rob Wier, who appears to be IBM's pointman for handling the politics of this situation.

If you take a careful look linguistically at what IBM's been saying about this situation, I hope you'll notice how politically manipulative it is. Unlike Oracle, which acts like a big gorilla that browbeats their customers, IBMers are a politically aware group of folks deeply skilled at rhetoric. The Free Software community should feel honored that IBM sends skilled diplomats to deal with us, but we shouldn't be fooled by what they are saying. As Jeremy points out, this is about copyleft vs. non-copyleft. We've got a vibrant, weak-copyleft community going now, and IBM and Oracle are making a final attempt to disrupt it.

For example, look carefully at how Wier uses the verb “blessed” to refer to FSF's recent announcement of its licensing recommendations. Of course, he quotes FSF out of context, and doesn't quote this part of FSF's recommendations:

When you contribute to an existing project, you should usually release your modified versions under the same license as the original work. It's good to cooperate with the project's maintainers, and using a different license for your modifications often makes that cooperation very difficult. You should only do that when there is a strong reason to justify it.

The existing license of OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice is LGPLv3. Oracle, in coordination with IBM, unilaterally changed the license out from under the community, rather than cooperating with the existing licensing. Oracle of course had the legal right to do so as copyright holder, but this was an act in conflict with the existing community in a moral sense, even if, again, it was a permissible act under the OO.o “community” guidelines.


0 Update on 2011-06-05: idoric pointed out to me that the LibreOffice website says it's LGPLv3-or-later. The LibreOffice website is a bit misleading on in some places on this point. idoric later pointed out that the better description is on the LibreOffice Get Involved for Developers page, which makes it clear that the effective license of Libreoffice is LGPLv3, but the community has chosen (LGPLv3-or-later|MPL) for new contributions. I don't really understand why the dual license with MPL makes sense; I presume it's there to help out pro-software-patent companies that might want to avoid the patent provisions of LGPLv3. It's a shame really, so in some ways, I'm slightly glad that LibreOffice is stuck on LGPLv3 as the effective license, even if it is LGPLv3-only. That brings me back to what I suggest in the main body of the post: relicensing the Apache-2.0 license code from Oracle as LGPLv3-or-later would presumably allow the effective license of the whole codebase to be LGPLv3-or-later.

Posted on Wednesday 1 June 2011 at 16:00 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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