Your license or mine?
Organizations and developers aren't simply concerned about the future of MySQL as a product, but how Oracle's possession of the database -- and its copyrights -- will affect licensing.
Monty Widenius, one of the original founders of MySQL, has been one of the most public opponents of the Sun-Oracle merger. He left Sun in 2009 to start up MariaDB, a new version of the MySQL source code, under the umbrella corporation Monty Program AB.
Widenius lobbied the European Commission to prevent the merger, arguing that it would be bad for Europe and society in general to let Oracle gain control of the copyrights to MySQL. He made the case that a company such as his, whose product is built on the open source database, is sustainable only if it can offer commercial licenses to users who don't want to be bound by the GPL.
Yet if Oracle were to become the sole copyright holder, he argued, no competition would be permitted to sell commercial licenses. (The original MySQL corporation always insisted on keeping the full copyright by asking that all contributors sign agreements assigning the copyright to the company. This power meant they and they alone could sell the chance to ignore the GPL.)
The trouble with forcing a customer to embrace the GPL is it's an arguably confusing license, the details of which can grow fairly complex. Some suggest, for example, that the license applies to the drivers that are usually more closely linked to everyone else's software and the protocols that define the connections. Others argue that the idea is overreaching.
In the past, I've known MySQL salespeople to effectively exploit would-be customers' confusion over the GPL, convincing them that opting for a commercial license would be simpler, eliminating any chance of costly legal battles down the road. And, of course, buying a commercial license helps feed starving developers. It's proven to be an effective and profitable scare tactic.
A kinder, gentler GPL
There's reason to believe that the fear of the GPL is dissipating. Google has no qualms running MySQL with the license. "There are a lot of people who read into the GPL what they wish it says," said Chris DiBona, the open source programs manager at Google. "We understand the GPL and we'll use it the way that it's made."
He noted that the GPL requires developers to include the source code when distributing copies. Most of what Google distributes is results, not software, so the company doesn't need to distribute any changes it makes to the software -- if it makes any at all. Many companies use MySQL and other GPL projects without any changes.
"Pretty soon, selling people on the idea that the GPL is scary and 'You should pay us not to hex you with it' is not going to be a durable business model," said Eben Moglen, a Columbia University law professor who often helped Richard Stallman draft versions of the GPL.
In the past, Moglen worked for both Oracle and MySQL to help them understand and define the role of the GPL in business. When the European Commission debated the merger, Moglen came to the conclusion that the marriage of the two companies [PDF] would not damage the openness of the source code, the most important factor in his mind and the real focus of the GPL.