Marten Mickos: Contrarian interview

Marten Mickos talks about his joining the founders of MySQL in the early days, reciprocity, and what makes MySQL unique

Sun research labs has a series of interviews called Contarian Minds, typically with hard-core researchers, scientists, and engineers. This month, they've posted an interview with Marten Mickos, former CEO of MySQL. For those who have followed open source closely, there may not be that much new information, but knowing Marten pretty well over the last five years, there were still a few new things I gleaned.

One of the important concepts in MySQL is the notion of reciprocity. It runs far deeper than just as a licensing mechanism or quid-pro-quo idea of fairness.

The way it works is simple. You can get MySQL through an open source license, which costs you nothing but has certain reciprocity requirements, or you can buy a commercial license.

In simple terms, the GPL, or general public license, says: This is open source, but you have to be open source, too.

"I think it's perfect. That's how I operate in my life," Mickos says. "When you come to my home, I open my kitchen for you and you eat and drink whatever you like, but when I visit you I expect to do the same. So I'm a big believer in reciprocity."

On the other hand, you can go to a restaurant and pay for a meal and that's reciprocity, too.

"Take Cisco's intrusion detection device. They needed a database to embed in it," Mickos says. "They come to us and say, 'MySQL, we like your product, but we are not going to open source ours. Is there any way around the reciprocity?' Then we say, 'Sure, if you pay us money, we will issue you a separate commercial license for the same bits.'"

I think that the licensing policy, and in fact many policies at MySQL, come down to a desire on Marten's part to treat people fairly and to do right by our customers, our users, our employees, and our shareholders. It made for a strong value system and one that has worked pretty well. Those values will continue to live on even as MySQL is part of Sun Microsystems.

And just as MySQL and its business model have evolved over the last five years, no doubt that will continue also. That's also been a hallmark of Marten's contribution at MySQL: We should never be afraid of change and of testing out new things. Better to embrace the future than cling to the past.