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Sun Microsystems president Jonathan Schwartz last week justified the company's controversial open-source strategy with an attack on the GPL (GNU General Public Licence), which he characterised as a tool allowing United States businesses to pillage developing countries of their intellectual property.
The attack represents a new tactic for Sun, which is trying to attract interest in its OpenSolaris project and fend off criticism of its decision to keep Java under proprietary lock and key. While the company hopes to create an image of itself as an open-source leader - and to reap the development work of the open-source developer community - Schwartz's speech to the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco last week was reminiscent of Microsoft's anti-GPL rhetoric.
The speech came on the heels of Sun's announcement of the five members of its OpenSolaris Community Advisory Board, intended to help develop and guide a developer community around the open-source version of Sun's flagship Solaris operating system. The board includes Roy Fielding, the co-founder of the Apache Software Foundation - the Apache Web server is one of the more visible open-source successes. The board also includes two outside Solaris developers and two members from Sun.
Like Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who once compared the GPL to Pac-Man, and president Steve Ballmer, who famously called the GPL a "cancer" feeding off of intellectual property, Schwartz believes the licence goes too far. On top of the danger to respectable business practices, he argued the GPL is "IP colonialism", a threat to poorer countries who need to use intellectual property to compete in the world marketplace.
On those countries the GPL imposes "a rather predatory obligation to [give back] all their IP to the wealthiest nation in the world", the United States, which developed the GPL, Schwartz said, according to various reports.
He took a swipe at the GPL's creators, implying they are more interested in social economic ideals than "intellectual property models". The GPL was originally created by Richard Stallman in the 1980s for use with the GNU (GNU's Not Unix) project.
Like Microsoft's GPL attacks, Schwartz's talk was designed to reflect Sun's own efforts in a better light - in this case Schwartz talked up Sun's Community Development and Distribution License (CDDL), which will cover OpenSolaris. Sun is introducing more permissive licences for Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE), the Java Internal Use License (JIUL) and the Java Distributed License (JDL), to take effect next year, but these don't qualify as open-source. Sun has always argued open-sourcing Java would lead to the development of incompatible forks, something critics dismiss as far-fetched.
Audaciously enough, Schwartz even levelled criticism at companies who talk up open-source while keeping their own products proprietary, though he didn't mention specific examples. Such companies would eventually be unmasked as hypocrites, Schwartz said.
Open-source developers continue to support the GPL, apparently unaware of its evil. The Freshmeat project-tracking site currently lists about 68 percent of its projects as covered by the GPL; the next most popular licence is the Lesser GPL (LGPL), at about 6 percent. The licence also covers the majority of projects on SourceForge, the biggest online open-source development management system. The Linux operating system kernel and many components, the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), the Samba networking system and other high-profile projects use the GPL.