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SUN vs./and ORCL: the failure of the dual licensing model? October 25, 2009

Posted by Sacha in English, IT.

I’ve never been at ease with GPL-dual licensing business models. What worried me wasn’t so much that OEMs had to pay for a proprietary license on the product – OEMs spend half of their lives licensing software and the other half paying royalties, FOSS or not. No, what I didn’t really like was the viability of this model, or more precisely that it invalidated one of FOSS’s key value and promise: the extreme viability of the code. Let me explain…

The good thing with FOSS-backed business models is that as a user of a FOSS product, whatever happens to the company behind the product (getting evil, going bankruptcy, etc.), you do have a B-plan. That B-plan might not be ideal, it might take time to materialize, might cost some money, but there *is* always a B-plan.

The problem with GPL dual-licensing business models is that this is simply not true. If the company behind a dual-licensed product X get sold to an evil company, goes bankrupt or decides to increase its prices by 400%, all OEMs are doomed. In the best case (i.e. if the IP is still owned by some legal entity, read: no bankruptcy), the OEMs can keep paying a high fee. But in case the IP owner just go bust, you cannot license that IP from anywhere anymore and you are only bound by the terms of the GPL and either have to GPL your own product or get rid of that viral piece of code. Don’t get me wrong, that situation is very similar to any proprietary product, but it then defeats one of the key added value of FOSS software: by going the GPL-dual-license route, OEM customers do not simply pay a fee, more importantly they loose one of the most important feature of FOSS: long term viability of the code.

So, to go back to the MySQL/ORCL drama, all of this bla bla wouldn’t take place if MySQL wasn’t dual-licensed (but was LGPL based for example): all customers (OEMs or end-users) could keep using it as-is, with no restrictions as to whether they have to open source their own product or not. Granted, they would loose the support/maintenance provided by SUN/MySQL, but could hope to find quality support from another company. There would be no ORCL/EU story, nada. For example, this problem doesn’t exist for other SUN-owned FOSS products such as Glassfish (CDDL) or OpenJDK SE (GPL+CP-Exception).

Oh, and if ORCL wanted to be (really) evil, they could simply relinquish control of the project governance to some “open body”, give away the trademark of the project and walk away… but KEEP MySQL’s copyright in their safe. They would then argue that they are good FOSS citizens since they have relinquished control on anything FOSS-related. This would obviously kill MySQL’s OEM market but ORCL could hardly be criticized by Open Source proponents for that move: the problem would lie in the absence of a *proprietary license* here, not in any FOSS-related concern. And if needed, this could be properly “spinned” as FUD by ORCL PR machine (and MSFT for that matter) to show how weak the Open Source model is – when it actually only shows *the* big weakness of  dual-licensing models.

Some of the ex-MySQL co-founders who now ask for ORCL to let MySQL go are responsible for the current situation: their choice of a dual license  business model years ago is what led to the current situation … but also what led MySQL to a 1B valuation. You cannot have it both ways I guess.

For a free marketing ride on the FOSS buzz, the dual-licensing model could cast a FUD-cloud on all FOSS-based business models.





1. 451 CAOS Theory » Everything you always wanted to know about MySQL but were afraid to ask - October 26, 2009

[…] 25: Sacha Labourey – SUN vs./and ORCL: the failure of the dual licensing model? “Some of the ex-MySQL co-founders who now ask for ORCL to let MySQL go are responsible for […]

2. Seun Osewa - January 18, 2010

If not for the dual license, the founders would not have had anything to sell, MySQL’s marketing budget would be zero, and we would all be using PostgreSQL. You can’t eat your cash and still own the code!

Sacha - January 18, 2010


3. Brian Aker - January 19, 2010


I’m no fan of dual licensing, but what I don’t get is why a number of the OEM vendors complain about paying the licensing fees for the drivers. You have a choice, either pay for the drivers, or write your own. If you write your own then the problem goes away.

PHP has distributed non-GPL MySQL drivers over the years. Redhat has done this off and on,… If you don’t want to pay for access to the drivers then you just need to write your own.


BTW this assumes you aren’t using libmysqld or shipping the server with your product. Almost no one ever has ever used libmysqld (if you are, you should probably be using SQLite), and the Internet really removes the need for you to ship the database with your product.

Sacha - January 19, 2010

agreed. JDBC drivers used to be licensed under the LGPL btw and MySQL changed that at some point.

4. Si chen - January 21, 2010


This sounds like the kind of clever schemes that James Bond villains come up with, but I’m afraid it might not work much better than a Dr. Evil plan either: They’d be killing off the OEM business they bought from MySQL, without being really able to kill off open source databases in general. There’s still postgresql, derby, etc., and another open source database can always spring up, right? So why would they want to do this?

Sacha - January 22, 2010

I agree, they will most probably not do that. But I don’t think the reason lies in the lost revenues since MySQL revenues are probably equal to 3 working days of ORCL revenues… No, I don’t think they are going to do it because they have other things to do, like… running a business. As for the other DBs, yes plenty of alternatives exist but MySQL is really the crown symbol of FOSS DB, other DBs have never been able to catch up on that front – whatever their technical merits are.

Si Chen - February 2, 2010

Yes, you are right. MySQL is probably just not a big deal to a company as big as ORCL either way. I wonder if the problem with “freeing MySQL” is just that SUNW (haha the old NASDAQ ticker, before JAVA) paid so much for it that if ORCL “freed” MySQL by selling it back out, they would have to take a big write-down?

5. Andrew C. Oliver - January 24, 2010

In the end I think there are even more problems with the “disruptive ‘pro’ upgrade” model. Often times the cost of redeployment from say “OurStuff DontUseThisProductOrItWillEatYourBrane Edition” to “OurStuff AwesomeThanksForPurchasing Edition” will dwarf all money paid over the life of the business relationship. The “right” way to do those is by keeping the “pro” version point-for-point compatible (i.e. springs Enterprise jars are drop in replacements that require no real effort) and this should be value-add not “or we won’t do any other kind of business with you”… I agree on the value add problems of the dual-license model. Just I think those aren’t well understood yet and haven’t been business problems for the vendors yet. I think this may change that.

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