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September 21st, 2010

Ellison & the GPL Part I

You would think a firm that fancies itself a Linux development company would have some respect for the GPL. With most companies, you’d be right. But not with Oracle. It becomes more obvious with each passing day that Larry Ellison has absolutely no respect for the GPL. The FOSS community would do well to consider Ellison to be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing and act accordingly – for “FOSS-friendly” Oracle might pose more of a threat than Microsoft ever did.

Ellison seems to be making the GPL his play toy, shamelessly looking for holes in the license to exploit to his own advantage. Several years back, to show his displeasure at Red Hat for potentially moving into his territory when they acquired JBoss, he boldly announced the release of Unbreakable Linux, which was really Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) rebranded as an Oracle product (which he was perfectly free to do under the terms of the GPL).


He then had the chutzpah to offer support, not only for Oracle’s distro, but for RHEL’s customers as well, at a fraction of what support from Red Hat would cost. Mainly this was seen for what it was, the actions of an angry bully against his rival. From what we can tell, few of Red Hat’s clients defected to the Oracle camp.

This week at Oracle OpenWorld, an Oracle trade fair at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Ellison announced another new game he’s playing with Linux and the GPL. It’s called Oracle’s Unbreakable Enterprise Kernal for Oracle Linux. If this sounds like a mouthful, it’s only a mouthful of hot air being vented into a balloon that should not fly. Basically, it seems to be the 2.6.32 Linux kernel optimized for the Oracle stack, nothing more nor less. However, Ellison and Company are making some fantastic performance claims, reminiscent of the “independent” studies commissioned by Microsoft that “proved” Windows was cheaper than Linux.

All of this would be merely comic relief if it wasn’t for the fact that Oracle just became a much more important player in the open source world with their acquisition of Sun. MySQL, Java and OpenOffice.org are now FOSS projects that fall under the Oracle umbrella, with OpenSolaris already having been killed-off. Oracle’s current legal battles against Google concerning the use of Java in Android have many worried, and rightly so, about the future status, not only of Java, but of OpenOffice.org and MySQL as well.

The later is particularly worrisome, as the open-source implementation of MySQL, combined with Linux and Apache, is one of the essential workhorses of the Internet. At any time, for any reason, Ellison could decide to remove dual licensing from future versions of the MySQL database and make it totally proprietary. However, this might not be all bad. MySQL, as a free and open database, has become so important that other big players (hint: IBM, Google & Yahoo) would probably pick up the ball, create a fork, and create a new standard, leaving Ellison stranded with a MySQL brand that no one wants anymore.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

5 comments to Ellison & the GPL Part I

  • MySQL has already been forked by the same guy(s) who created it (and then sold it to Sun.. .), it’s called MariaDB. Maybe this time around Monty might not sell out again, if people even trust MariaDB to stay free in the long run.

    I am starting to think that Oracle can help Free Software by at least brining awareness to the community.

  • Oscar Penton

    I think it’s only a matter of time when the linux kernel will be changed to the GPL version 3.

  • Christine Hall

    @manu Actually Monty Widenius has no choice but to keep MariaDB free and open. Since he’s starting with GPL code, and he no longer has any rights other than what the GPL gives him, he couldn’t take it private even if he wanted to.

    @Oscar Licensing the Linux kernel under the GPL3 would be nearly impossible. Thousands of code contributers own copyrights to various portions of Linux, which they contributed under the understanding that their code would be released under the GPL2. To change the license would mean that every contributer would have to be found and convinced to sign papers agreeing to changing the license.

  • Grant Likely

    Sorry, how exactly is Oracle playing games with the GPL? They took a GPLed project (Linux), stabilized it, are selling support for it, and published the result for anyone to take and do the same:

    http://oss.oracle.com/git/?p=linux-2.6-unbreakable.git;a=summary

    They are playing by the rules and being a good citizen. They are doing exactly what the GPL was designed to guarantee.

  • Christine Hall

    Grant, I completely agree that what they’re doing is allowed by the GPL and I wouldn’t try to stop them from doing it. However, I think their actions speaks to their moral character. As far as I can see, they’re not adding any value, simply re-releasing Red Hat’s sweat – and then trying to steal Red Hat’s customer base in the process. All perfectly legal, but it doesn’t make them folks I’d like to invite to my house for dinner.