How Oracle sees open source may not be how you see open source

Many open-source developers and business people are upset that Oracle is suing Google over Java patents in Android. These people have reason to worry. This case could change not just how they use Java but how open-source development is done at all.

So why would Oracle, a Linux-supporter in its own right, introduce the evil of software patents into open-source programming? My answer: Because Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO, thinks the company can profit from it.

You see there are two ways of looking at open source, as Eben Moglen, founder of the SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center), explained recently at LinuxCon. Moglen said, "The patent crisis is not going to go away. We're now in a situation -- after the Bilski decision -- where clarity on the patent situation is not coming anytime soon." And, "The patent system is built for secrecy and for trouble-making -- it's not a pro-innovation system."

Because of this, Oracle decided to make hay while they could with its aging Sun Java patents. But, why did they choose this way? Well, Moglen answered that question as well even before anyone knew that Oracle was going to sue anyone.

In short, Moglen said that there are two ways to approach open source. One is as part of a community. I call this approach, "Making the pie bigger." With a bigger, better pie everyone who shares in it gets a bigger, better piece of the pie. This is the approach that Red Hat, Novell, and Canonical take.

Then, there's the other way. This seeks to simply take advantage of the 'free' pie. As Moglen described this, "When we are defending [software] freedom, we are not defending it against business. But sometimes, we are defending it against greed."

Now, it's not that Oracle doesn't give back to some of the open-source communities. It does. Oracle is a big Linux supporter. At last count, Oracle ranked number six in its contributions to the Linux kernel.

But, then, Oracle gets a lot out of Linux as well. To see how Larry Ellison really sees open source in a larger sense, you need look no further than his own words on a Financial Times interview from 2006.

He said, "In the end, the only thing that really matters is how many billions we make this year. I'd much rather make $10bn at 40 per cent margins than $8bn at 50 per cent margins. I want to make $10bn."

And how does open-source fit into this bigger bucks plan? Easily.

"If an open source product gets good enough, we'll simply take it," said Ellison. "Take [the web server software] Apache: once Apache got better than our own web server, we threw it away and took Apache. So the great thing about open source is nobody owns it -- a company like Oracle is free to take it for nothing, include it in our products and charge for support, and that's what we'll do. So it is not disruptive at all -- you have to find places to add value. Once open source gets good enough, competing with it would be insane."

In short, "Just like software-as-a-service, we have to be good at it. We don't have to fight open source, we have to exploit open source." In this case, Oracle now owns the patents to Java so, Oracle argues, it owns the open-source implementations such as Google's Dalvik JVM (Java Virtual Machine).

By suing Google, Oracle is doing exactly what Ellison said the company would. He's exploiting open source and a broken patent system. Next question?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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