Many open-sourcers back an Oracle takeover of MySQL

A number of influential members of the open-source community are raising their voices about Oracle Corp.'s pending takeover of the open source MySQL database. Surprisingly, many are not opposing the shift in MySQL ownership that would come with the close of Oracle's $7.4 billion deal to acquire current owner Sun Microsystems Inc., contending that it would not wound the open source database.

Those supporters say that MySQL co-founder Monty Widenius, free software advocate Richard Stallman, and others are whipping up unfounded fears about the future of MySQL in order to get the European Commission to either quash the entire deal or at least force Oracle to sell off MySQL. TheEC launched an in-depth investigation into the planned merger this fall, citing "serious concerns" about how the deal would affect database competition.

"I may be a contrarian on this, but I don't think Oracle will have any dramatically-enhanced market power," said Mark Shuttleworth, founder and CEO of Canonical Ltd., maker of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. The latest Ubuntu Server 9.10 version includes a copy of MySQL. "The EU's sophistication on open-source matters may make them inclined to overreact. In fact, they have little to worry about."

Opponents like Widenius and Stallman argue that whatever Oracle and it's CEO Larry Ellison may claim, the acquirer would either weaken or bury the widely-used MySQL in order to protect its proprietary database, which generates more than $8.5 billion in revenue a year for the company.

They also contend that what supporters of the deal call MySQL's salvation -- its open-source status, which allows anyone to download, modify and even sell their own versions of MySQL -- is just a mirage.

However, open-source veterans such as Carlo Piana, a lawyer for the Free Software Foundation Europe who successfully sued Microsoft to open its Windows networking protocols, maintain that Oracle's ownership wouldn't hurt the future of MySQL.

"If Oracle were hypothetically to bend the project away from competition in the high end or simply make it a stale project, it is clear to me that the declining fortunes of the original work would leave (disgruntled developers) room to further the success of the fork(s)," -- new software created from open source code, wrote Piana.

Matthew Aslett, an analyst at research firm The 451 Group, argue that opponents are "spreading what can only be described as fear, uncertainty and doubt. The only possible argument in favor of the EC blocking Oracle's acquisition of MySQL is that it is damaging to competition, not that it is damaging to MySQL itself," which is the primary arguments of opponents like Widenius and Stallman, Aslett wrote in a 451 Group blog post earlier this month.

"Otherwise we are asking the EC to rule on whether Oracle is open source-friendly enough to own MySQL, and that is neither something that an organization like the EC is equipped to answer nor something that it should be asked to decide," he added.

Pamela Jones, editor of the Groklaw open-source blog, suggests that opponents such as Widenius, who recently became an advisor to Microsoft's CodePlex Foundation open-source community site, may be acting as pawns for organizations interested in buying MySQL if Oracle is forced to sell.

"There is a Microsoft shadow in this picture," she wrote.

Licensing issues

Crucial to this debate is how the open-source license used by MySQL, the General Public License v2, is viewed.

GPL v2 is used for about half of all open-source apps, including Linux. Created by Stallman, GPLv2 requires anyone who distributes or sells an app based on the licensed code to give away the source code for free.

The "copyleft" provision of GPLv2 would allow developers to easily create and even sell so-called "forked" versions of MySQL if they become dissatisfied with Oracle's handling of it. Indeed, a number of forks for MySQL have emerged in the past two years due to dissatisfaction with Sun's management of the database.

The license provision would serve as a check against Oracle's misuse of its ownership of MySQL, supporters of the deal say.

However, critics like Widenius and Stallman argue that any attempted forks of MySQL could not use a key revenue source -- the ability to sell proprietary licenses of MySQL to software vendors looking to build their own apps using MySQL.

For competitive reasons, many ISVs don't want to share the source code back to the wider community. As such, the GPLv2 has little appeal to such developers.

Meanwhile, because it would own the MySQL copyright and the right to distribute MySQL under dual licenses (GPLv2 and proprietary licenses), Oracle would have the right to sell proprietary licenses to ISVs.

In this context, by forcing all source code improvements to be shared, GPLv2 gives Oracle an advantage open-source forkers, the opponents say.

"One can fork a GPL project (i.e. the code), but one can't easily duplicate the economic infrastructure around it," Widenius wrote in his blog.

Some opponents say they would be appeased if the EU forced Oracle to switch off the GPL to a more permissive licensing arrangement, such as that used for the Apache open source Web server.

"Apache leaves everyone -- developers, users, vendors, etc. -- on equal footing," wrote Matt Asay, an executive at open-source firm Alfresco Software, and blogger for "The GPL does not. With the GPL, the copyright holder [Oracle in this case} retains effective control."

Appeal overstated

Piana, who recently joined Oracle as co-counsel to work on the effort to clear the merger, argues that opponents of the deal are overestimating the appeal MySQL would have if the open-source community, or even just the key developers, abandoned it. "A proprietary standalone version of MySQL has no appeal compared to the free software licensed one," he wrote in his blog.

Gordon Haff, an open-source analyst with Illuminata Inc., also doesn't buy the argument that the GPL hurts MySQL. He's in favor of the deal going through. "Oracle's planned acquisition of Sun does inject some uncertainty into the MySQL picture although, in my view, the more frantic handwringing is overblown," he said.

Marten Mickos, former CEO of MySQL, maintains that even with the dual-licensing structure Oracle would use, "users of MySQL exert a more powerful influence in the market than the owner does."

In a letter sent earlier this month to Neelie Kroes, the EC's commissioner for competition, Mickos argues that "the reality remains that if the main steward of an open-source product fails to live up to reasonable expectations, the forces of open source will take over. "

Mickos, who says he has no financial stake in the merger, also argues that Oracle is being portrayed unfairly as a bogeyman.

Oracle "has as many compelling business reasons to continue the ramp-up of the MySQL business as Sun Microsystems and MySQL previously did, or even more," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Groklaw's Jones says that letting the EU force Oracle to change MySQL's license from the GPL to the more permissive Apache license would set a dangerous precedent.

"On what legal basis would anyone have authority to change the license, other than the copyright holder?" she wrote. "Are you seriously suggesting that a regulatory body decide the license instead of the copyright owner? What a reckless idea."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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