Would IBM loosen Java up or keep it tight?

There is still no word on the IBM-Sun merger rumors, but folks I hear from seem to be operating on the assumption that it's a done deal. IBM is supposedly spending this week scouring Sun's legal agreements to make sure that there's nothing there that Big Blue would find unpalatable or indigestible; the Wall Street Journal's coverage of that process implies that Sun's software licensing terms are an important area of that review. "Sun in the past has had different types of licenses for its programming language Java and its operating system Solaris," the WSJ notes. "Although Sun now embraces Linux and other software covered by the General Public License, a free-software licensing scheme, Sun has used other types of open-software licenses in the past. IBM was an early corporate backer of Linux, and it has proved adept at making money with free software by providing services and selling its own software that augments the free products. It is examining all the terms of Sun's licenses to see whether there are any conflicts with IBM's practices."

Of course, of primary interest to Java developers is whether IBM will handle Java licensing any differently than Sun has done; a test case that could tell us how the future will go may come with the long-running Sun-Apache dispute over compatibility kits. Chris Dibona, Google's open source chief, is extremely sunny on that point, saying that "I think IBM would not be as restrictive about the use of the TCK.... IBM has been a huge user of Java and a huge supporter of the Java projects." I've heard other whispers agreeing with this, but with a healthy does of "who knows" attached.

One way to look predict future behavior is to study the past. In one sense, IBM has a great past when it comes to keeping Java open -- but that has been in a context where IBM was basing much of its software line on Java, the trademark rights to which it didn't control. IBM may not pay Sun for a Java license; when Sun tried to get Big Blue to pay up in the late 1990s, IBM claimed that it had come to an agreement with Sun during the language's infancy that exempted them from the need to do so, and the two companies have been in a sort of uneasy detente on the matter since. But we have very little evidence on how good IBM is at letting go of its own code. That's because, other than fairly obscure packages like Cloudscape (which itself had its origin in Informix, a company IBM acquired), IBM's been more a user and extender of open source offerings. That's not to minimize IBM's contribution to projects like Linux and Java; but with flagship products like AIX and DB2 still proprietary, we have no guide as to how IBM will deal with open source software that it owns trademarks to. You'll have to forgive me, but when I hear tales of lawyers taking days to pore over Sun licensing agreements, I kind of doubt that the main question on their mind is "How can we make these less restrictive after we take over?"

This story, "Would IBM loosen Java up or keep it tight?" was originally published by JavaWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.