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Bad relations between MySQL and NuSphere. NuSphere, a subsidiary of Progress Software, has been working over the last year to make a living through the commercialization of the free MySQL database. To that end, NuSphere entered into an agreement with MySQL AB, the company created by the original authors of MySQL. The actual agreement is not public, but it involved NuSphere adding a number of high-end features to MySQL, and the ability of NuSphere to base products on MySQL.
The two companies have evidently not seen eye to eye for some time, but, until recently, the dispute has been handled quietly. No more. NuSphere has filed suit against MySQL AB for "breach of contract, tortious interference with third party contracts and relationships and unfair competition." The legal proceedings did not set off MySQL AB, however, as much as NuSphere's launch of MySQL.org. That site, intended by NuSphere as a community resource independent of MySQL AB, hit the MySQL folks a little too close to home. They greeted the site with a strongly-worded press release entitled MYSQL COMMUNITY THREATENED BY OBSCURE .ORG WEBSITE:
Marten Mickos, newly appointed CEO of MySQL AB, commented "We consider operating the mysql.ORG site illegal activity and we are taking steps to enforce our trademark and other rights."
Nusphere's response, in the form of a press release announcing MySQL.org, was not a whole lot better:
MySQL.org is designed to more clearly separate church and state for the MySQL community. Developers will not encounter licensing demands or sales calls with MySQL.org, as they may with the MySQL.com Web site,' said Britt Johnston, chief technology officer, NuSphere.
Mr. Johnston was not able to provide us with any examples of "licensing demands or sales calls" resulting from use of the MySQL.com site.
MySQL.org, however, is just the tip of an iceberg of disputes that includes:
The trademark issue has the look of something that could become a perennial problem for the free software community. Is a piece of software truly free if its name is not? This issue has come up before (i.e. ssh), and will again. The desire of software authors and companies to control the names they use is understandable, but an excess of trademarks could make a minefield for the free software community in the same way as software patents. This is an important and unresolved problem.
The GPL issues are also relevant. Violations of the GPL are always a problem, and it is good that NuSphere has, for now, moved back into compliance. But what about NuSphere's charge against MySQL AB? According to NuSphere CTO Britt Johnston, the company's complaint centers around the following requirement, as seen on the MySQL AB policy page:
A [commercial] license is required if... You have a commercial application that ONLY works with MySQL and ships the application with the MySQL server. This is because we view this as linking even if it is done over the network
This is the old boundary issue in a new form: what, exactly, distinguishes "linking" from "aggregation"? That question, too, will return to haunt us, and it may have to be resolved in court. That, of course, would be unfortunate; judges are not necessarily well qualified to make that kind of determination.
The real problem for MySQL users, though, could well be that people see this dispute and decide to use a different free database system (i.e. PostgreSQL or InterBase) instead. After all, if the developers are busy fighting each other instead of hacking and claims of licensing violations are flying, why not use another (entirely capable) system where life appears calmer? This dispute, if it continues, could result in a fork of the MySQL code, slowed development, and a reduced user community. None of that would be good.
So it is encouraging to see some attempts being made to defuse the situation. MySQL AB has published an open invitation to NuSphere to talk about and resolve the problems. NuSphere's response is (mostly) positive, and the two companies are apparently scheduled to talk on July 20. With luck, they will manage to bring an end to a fight that can not do either of them, or the free software community, any good.
The DMCA strikes again. Dmitry Sklyarov came over to "the land of the free" from Russia to speak at Defcon in Las Vegas. He was probably a little surprised to find himself arrested by the FBI and facing charges that could land him in prison for the next five years. The U.S. Attorney's Office was so pleased with itself that it issued a press release proclaiming the arrest. The crime Mr. Sklyarov is charged with is heinous indeed: he worked on a Russian commercial software product which allows people to copy and read files in the proprietary Adobe "eBook" format.
The eBook format allows for highly restrictive control of copyrighted materials. It can only be processed by an Adobe eBook reader, and only on one computer. It can not be copied, printed, or excerpted. Many of the activities commonly seen as "fair use" are disallowed by this format. One could argue that the "Advanced eBook Processor" simply allows eBook customers to exercise their fair use rights. Adobe, of course, argues that it is a "circumvention device" which must be suppressed.
The nature of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act does not get much clearer than this: write a program that interprets a proprietary file format, and you'll go to jail. For years. It is a serious threat to free software, and to civil liberties in the U.S. in general. Or even outside the U.S.: Mr. Sklyarov wrote his code for a Russian company - and the code is legal there.
Like the DVD case, this prosecution will be an important one for the future of fair use and programming rights in the U.S. We'll be keeping an eye on it. Meanwhile, for further information, see:
There is also a Free Sklyarov mailing list, set up by Seth David Schoen, for those interested in following this situation.
Conferences next week. The O'Reilly Open Source Convention starts in San Diego on July 23. Numerous prominent free software developers will be there. We'll also get to hear from Microsoft's Craig Mundie on the joys of "shared source." It may not be the friendliest reception he's ever encountered...
Meanwhile, the Ottawa Linux Symposium starts up in, strangely enough, Ottawa on July 25. OLS is a smaller, development-oriented conference limited to 500 attendees. If past events are any guide, neither highly technical talk nor beer will be lacking.
LWN will be present at both events; watch our pages for information from the show floors.
Followup on .NET alternatives. Of course, the article last week on .NET alternatives did not manage to get them all. We're a little embarrassed at what got left out, actually. Here's a few other projects to look at, for those who are interested in what is happening in this space.
No doubt there are others worthy of a mention. Suffice to say the community is not standing still and letting the new net pass it by. It remains to be seen, however, whether any of these efforts will succeed in establishing itself as a standard. Doing that requires more than just a set of good technical ideas.
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July 19, 2001