Interview

Sound off: Sun, Microsoft settlement irks some

Amy Kucharik

Are there grounds for OpenOffice.org users to be concerned? Did Sun sell the open source community down the river?

It does raise some theoretical issues that could cause problems should things play out in a certain fashion.
Are there grounds for OpenOffice.org users to be concerned? Did Sun sell the open source community down the river?

Licensing-wise there are no grounds for concern. However, Microsoft has indicated that they are building a portfolio of intellectual property based on software patents.
Are there grounds for OpenOffice.org users to be concerned? Did Sun sell the open source community down the river?

The agreement's language pertaining to OpenOffice is there to exclude that product from association with the agreement.

What that means, simply, is that Microsoft wants the agreement to be interpreted in the future as leaving them the same opportunity as existed before to sue OpenOffice users. It makes no indication of the likelihood of such action, and it would be wrong to infer such from the existence of this language.

What I think the press is getting mixed up about is that there is no change -- whatsoever -- in the condition of OpenOffice or Sun's disposition toward OpenOffice users. There is no new threat; it's the same as it ever was.

In my view the agreement should strengthen the appeal of StarOffice and other included Sun products in the eyes of enterprise customers, since it adds certainty in terms

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of product liability. This is part of what large software vendors exist to provide.

The offense that the community takes that Sun, having protected its product, StarOffice, did not extend that same protection to OpenOffice is based on ignorance of open-source and of the role of enterprise software vendors in securing their products. Leaving an open-source product/project unprotected under such circumstances is customary and appropriate.
Are there grounds for OpenOffice.org users to be concerned? Did Sun sell the open source community down the river?

Patents are the most pressing concern for the entire open source community. I don't think this settlement in particular changes or makes clear any new risks.
How much does Sun own, anyway?

The original source code of StarOffice became the property of Sun Microsystems when they bought it from the German company Star Division. However OpenOffice has been made available under the GNU General Public License (GPL), enabling other individuals or companies to fork the software and do their own development.
How much does Sun own, anyway?

You and I have equal equity or ownership in OpenOffice.org as Sun because the code is open source (LGPL & SISSL dual-license). Sun, however, commits most of the development effort in terms of code.

Sun's relationship with OpenOffice.org is similar to that of the several open source projects to which they are major contributors. They are part of the open community of contributors and may create a separate branded product based on the open-source base.

Sun owns the brand and trademark to StarOffice and many of the OpenOffice.org developers who are paid by Sun also work on StarOffice.
What was the reason for keeping this provision secret until now?

Good question. However this is not uncommon among companies when reaching an out-of-court settlement.
What was the reason for keeping this provision secret until now?

You make a big assumption of active behavior to suppress information that I'm afraid is inaccurate, and, worse, wrong-headed. The meaningful parts were announced at the time of the agreement. The agreement itself naturally became a part of a Sun regular SEC financial filing recently because it has material implications for Sun's future business and financial performance.
Doesn't the GPL protect OpenOffice, or is the GPL too weak to stand up to Microsoft's lawyers?

This is about patents which are quite different than copyright, which is the basis of the GPL and LGPL. The product could be fully compliant with GPL and LGPL and still infringe Microsoft's patents.
Doesn't the GPL protect OpenOffice, or is the GPL too weak to stand up to Microsoft's lawyers?

GPL is a license; it establishes the limitations of distribution of the product. It doesn't "protect" anything in the sense you mean, like an umbrella.
Doesn't the GPL protect OpenOffice, or is the GPL too weak to stand up to Microsoft's lawyers?

The GPL doesn't offer much in protection. The only thing it does is forces people who want to distribute OpenOffice to make sure that it's clear of patent infringement. This means that folks like Sun, IBM, and Novell, who desperately want to distribute OpenOffice, will have a great incentive to fight to protect it from patents.

The truth is that the GPL actually has some nasty triggers with patents. If you can assert a patent that I can't afford to litigate or code around, I lose my ability to distribute any code containing that patented algorithm under the GPL.
Doesn't the GPL protect OpenOffice, or is the GPL too weak to stand up to Microsoft's lawyers?

The danger lies in software patents that claim inventions. In many cases settlements have to be reached regardless of the fact that a claim is valid or not. Having a day in court is a very expensive exercise.
What strategies can OpenOffice users employ to protect themselves in the event that they ever do get sued?

Insist on indemnification from Sun. Have their own counsel assess their risk situation and form a strategy based upon that. Obtain insurance. Recognize that the overall risk is extremely low and continue to use OpenOffice while monitoring the situation. Microsoft has never sued for patent infringement (no guarantee in the future, of course).
What strategies can OpenOffice users employ to protect themselves in the event that they ever do get sued?

Support Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure in Europe and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the USA.
What strategies can OpenOffice users employ to protect themselves in the event that they ever do get sued?

I'd be very surprised (and excited) if any customer actually got sued. I think it's far more likely that Microsoft will drop dark hints and threaten a suit, but never actually sue. FUD is going to do more for Microsoft than any real lawsuits would. Microsoft will get into a lot of hot water with antitrust supervisors if they take any such action.

So if [Microsoft] sued, a lot of us would be excited and would spring to [the user's] defense. You'd find that the Free Software Foundation has a legal fund and would gladly step in, I suspect. I also think Novell would be glad to help.

Candidly, I would tell customers to ignore the FUD and go full speed ahead; I doubt a lawsuit will happen. The real issue here is whether we're going to allow Microsoft goombas to sell us all "protection," or whether we as a larger community are going to stand up and fight.

You can pay the goombas off (i.e. be scared of patents and not use OpenOffice), but then they'll come back next year. Or you can take a deep breath, tell them to do their worst, and win your freedom. I hope enough folks are brave enough to help us all win freedom.


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