Update: Apache battles Sun over Java license

Open source organization protests IP rights restrictions

The Apache Software Foundation is in a dispute with Sun Microsystems over a license for the Java technology compatibility kit needed for the Apache Harmony project.

Harmony is an open source implementation of Java Platform, Standard Edition (Java SE) 5.

"We've converged on two different positions [regarding the matter] and there is a big gap," said Geir Magnusson Jr, Apache officer and vice president of the Java Community Process at Apache, in an interview on Tuesday morning.

Apache posted online on Tuesday an open letter of protest to Sun, signed by Magnusson.

"The JCK [Java Compatibility Kit] license Sun is offering imposes IP rights restrictions through limits on the 'field of use' available to users of our software," Magnusson said.

"These restrictions are totally unacceptable to us," he wrote.

The restrictions are contrary to the terms of the Java Specification Participation Agreement (JSPA), to which Sun is bound, said Magnusson.

Sun's JCK license, he wrote, protects portions of Sun's commercial Java business at the expense of Apache's open software.

"Such implicit or explicit threats of IP-based aggression give one actor overwhelming commercial advantages over the other participants in the ecosystem," said Magnusson in the letter. "In an open ecosystem, it must be the case that the necessary IP to implement a specification can be secured independently from the specific commercial interests of any one actor in the ecosystem, which is the basis of our objection to your offered terms."

Sun's terms hold back Harmony and pose credibility risks to the JCP and the reputation of Java as an open technology, according to the letter.

With its terms, Sun is attempting to circumvent a requirement that a specification lead not impose contractual conditions limiting the right of any licensee to build or distribute independent implementations, said Magnusson. Sun also must license IP royalty-free, Magnusson said.

Apache is asking Sun to offer an acceptable JCK within 30 days. "The license that Sun is offering us would put restrictions on how our users could use our independent implementation of Java," Magnusson said.

For example, if users wanted to use Harmony to power an information kiosk at an airport or use it in an X ray machine alongside Linux, they could not. "Sun considers that a use case that would be forbidden under the license," Magnusson said.

Sun posted a blog response to Apache that said the company is working on an open source implementation of Java and the dispute with Apache is over terms.

"Sun is working with as many communities as possible to create an open source implementation of the Java platform under the GPL (GNU General Public License) v2 that mainstream open source communities can work with - this includes TCKs," Sun wrote.

"As you'll note from Apache's letter, this is a dispute over specific terms, not over Sun providing a TCK," the company said.

"Java technology has many stakeholders, and we recognize that we will not be able to please everyone as we move through this process. In some cases, we'll have to agree to disagree on some points," Sun said.

"Our current priority is to make the Java platform accessible to the GNU/Linux community as quickly as possible, Sun said. The company also said it had just received the letter and had considered the matter private.

Sun has not specifically asked for royalties, Magnusson said. From Apache's perspective, Apache could not distribute the software under an Apache license because the field of use limitation "prevents users from using the software as they see fit," Magnusson said.

"We worked very hard to avoid a public letter," he said. Apache has been seeking an acceptable license for testing Java SE since last August. 

"It got to the point where we couldn't find anymore avenues of discussion," said Magnusson.

The Harmony project predated Sun's own open source efforts on Java, announced last November, by a year, Magnusson said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.