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Leading items and editorials

No more free StarOffice downloads. Linux users have long been accustomed to being able to download the StarOffice suite for free. It is one of the best deals out there: a complex, highly functional office suite which can be had for the price of a download. Seemingly, the deal was a little too good; the word has now slipped out that StarOffice 6.0 will be a proprietary product. At least for some operating systems; the Solaris version will remain free (of charge).

Why might Sun be doing this? Turning StarOffice into a proprietary product will certainly reduce its use on Linux systems. In the absence of a definitive word from Sun, one can only go looking for possible motives, such as:

  • The StarOffice development team is expensive, and Sun would like to earn enough money from their work to pay their keep.

  • Pointy-haired bosses might actually take the product more seriously if they have to pay for it. Turning StarOffice into a commercial product could, conceivably, increase its penetration into places where Sun actually wants to go.

  • By all appearances, Sun will be coming out with its own Linux distribution (though the company has refused to comment to us on that topic). A Sun-branded Linux would offer a distinct value above other distributions if it were the only one which came with a bundled version of StarOffice.

Then again, perhaps Sun just remains hostile to the idea of free software. Those days, however, are probably (hopefully) past.

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out. If Sun is able to turn StarOffice into a successful product, that is likely to be good for Linux in the long run. That is a big "if," however; if your name is not Microsoft, the office suite business is not a very fun place to be. Sun's success there is far from guaranteed.

The Linux community, in any case, can be calm about this move. After all, StarOffice never was free software, even if one did not have to pay for it. But it's based on OpenOffice, which, thanks to Sun, is free software. OpenOffice does most of what StarOffice does (see the OpenOffice FAQ for a list of differences), and the source is out there. If a commercial StarOffice helps to support the development of OpenOffice, it is hard to argue that the Linux community has lost anything from this move.

[Editor's note: the original title of this article ("StarOffice goes proprietary") was clearly misleading, generated a lot of mail, and has been changed. We apologize for any confusion].

The Progress (NuSphere)/MySQL AB preliminary hearing was still unresolved as of this writing. This is a legal case that is worth watching; it is, perhaps, the first time that the GPL will be tested in court.

The basics of the case are relatively straightforward. NuSphere implemented its "Gemini" storage manager for MySQL, and shipped a binary product that included that code. Since MySQL is licensed under the GPL, NuSphere was bound by the license to ship the source for its modifications. The source for Gemini, however, was long in coming.

NuSphere has issued a press release denying any violation of the GPL took place:

The FSF contends that NuSphere violated the GPL by simply linking proprietary software to the MySQL system using a public API. MySQL AB is interpreting the GPL so broadly that any commercial software that comes into contact with free software must also become free..

MySQL AB does indeed take a broad view of the GPL - code which speaks to the MySQL daemon over a network connection can deemed to be "linked" and thus fall under the GPL. In the Gemini case, however, things are simpler: the Gemini storage manager was staticly linked into the MySQL daemon itself. This is exactly the sort of situation the GPL was written to cover; if it does not apply here then its restrictions on derived works are weak indeed. It will be interesting to see what the court says, but this case looks clear to most observers.

Of course, the Gemini source has been available for some time; NuSphere's current products are no longer in violation. Unfortunately for NuSphere, the GPL states that, once a violation occurs, all rights to use the software are terminated. MySQL AB is trying to use that term to prevent NuSphere from distributing MySQL at all, even though it is currently in compliance. That is a departure from previous GPL enforcement efforts; usually, once a problem has been resolved, the violator is "forgiven" and may continue to distribute the software. The normal purpose, after all, is to bring about compliance with the license. The first goal is not usually punishment of the violator.

This case is clearly different. NuSphere makes its living by selling value-added versions of MySQL (and associated services). By trying to deprive NuSphere of the right to distribute the system, even after the GPL violation has been remedied, MySQL AB is going for blood: NuSphere could well be driven out of business.

Why is MySQL AB taking this approach? There has been bad blood between the two companies for some time, and lawsuits have been filed in both directions. The full details of the dispute between the two have never been made public; there is likely far more going on than most of us are aware of. The GPL enforcement looks like just another tactic employed by MySQL AB in this disagreement. In other words, we're seeing the public part of an unpleasant, private, and unrelated (to the GPL) fight between two corporations. It's too bad they had to drag the GPL into it.

(See also: the FSF's press release on Eben Moglen's participation in the trial, his affidavit explaining in detail why NuSphere should lose its right to distribute MySQL, and this brief report from the preliminary hearing suggesting that a GPL-based injunction would not be issued at this time).

Monitoring the chilling effects. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with Internet law clinics at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and San Francisco have announced the launch of a new site at ChillingEffects.org. This site seeks to encourage freedom of expression on the Internet with legal information on (U.S.) intellectual property laws and First Amendment rights. Topics covered include the rights of authors of "fan fiction," anonymous posting, linking, and, of course, the DMCA.

The real core of the site, however, appears to be an archive of "cease and desist" letters that have been published by their recipients. This is a highly worthwhile endeavor; as the number of these letters grows, this archive will provide a picture of the real cost of the DMCA and other problematic intellectual property laws. That can only help in the battle to roll back those laws, and to prevent the passage of even more ill-advised legislation (such as the SSSCA). Of course, seeing how willing some people are to call out the lawyers and shut down sites they don't like could have a chilling effect of its own...

Speaking of the SSSCA, it's worth taking a look at this column by Jack Valenti, CEO of the MPAA. This, of course, is the guy who claimed that the video cassette recorder "is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman alone." He's worried about Internet downloads of films, of course. His solution?

Simply put, in order to transport movies as agreed to by the consumer on a rent, buy or pay-per-view basis with heightened security, computers and video devices must be prepared to react to instructions embedded in the film.

In other words, the film industry wants to be able to program our computers for us to implement their copyright protection schemes. One imagines that the industry will not react well to those of us who decide to reprogram our systems to work the way we want. Given that new hearings on digital content protection are to be held on February 28 (with our friend Mr. Valenti testifying), the threat of new, hostile legislation is real.

This approach is hostile, at its core, to the fundamental ideas behind free software. The MPAA knows how our hardware and software should work, and is prepared to use the legal system to ensure computers work that way. It is your hardware, but it is controlled by somebody else. This does not look like a desirable future to those of us who are concerned about freedom, fair use rights, security, privacy, or any of a number of other issues.

(See also: this Bugtraq posting on severe privacy problems with the Microsoft Windows Media Player.)

W3C RAND licensing followup. The W3C has issued a press release describing its now draft patent policy. The new policy was examined in detail back in January; we'll not repeat that discussion now. If anything, the policy has tipped ever more strongly against patented technology: "Working Group Participants must now commit to Royalty-Free Licensing." Once again, congratulations are due to the community: we won this one.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Common security vulnerability naming; squid problems.
  • Kernel: Process migration; Doing BK penguin style.
  • Distributions: Rock Linux; Embedded Distributions and new Intel processors.
  • Development: Omni 0.6.0, Alsa 0.9.0b12, Linux H.A. report, Ghostscript 6.53, Zope 2.5.1b1, Gnome 2.0 beta, AbiWord 0.99.2, gphoto 2.0, GCC 3.0.4, TinyCOBOL 0.5.7.
  • Commerce: Linux International starts telecom marketing initiative; EU lets Microsoft write its Patent Directive.
  • Letters: Racism and free software; Debian Testing; CML2.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

February 28, 2002


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