Sun Microsystems says they’ll release their Java runtime software under the GPL. They haven’t done this yet, so there isn’t much to celebrate now. But in 2007, Sun’s Java ME, Java SE, and Java EE should be released under the most widely used free software license.
If this happens, many thanks are due to Sun. This will be a substantive contribution to software freedom everywhere and will help many people do lots of things we can’t do so easily right now (including playing multimedia on a webpage inline, right there on the page). I’ll look forward to seeing the source code licensed to me under the GPL.
Sun held a conference to announce this and the speaker misintroduced Richard Stallman as being
[…] first and foremost, the name associated with Open Source. He has been the strongest advocate, for many years, in driving the understanding of the value of the Open Source program. And in the past, in the context of licensing and distribution plan for Java, he has had some issues and has published a paper called “The Java Trap“, and, you know, we’ve taken a long hard look at that and respect the perspective there. But with today’s announcement, I think you’ll see a bit of a change.
Some of what he said is true: the Java trap will be significantly disarmed by GPLing Sun’s Java. But another part is not true: Richard Stallman does not promote Open Source. He takes great pains to tell people this every time he talks. You won’t see it in RMS’ segment promoting Sun’s soon-to-be freed Java because that is obviously edited. All of the Sun videos linked from this article are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Why would Sun do this if they’re making so much money and wielding so much persuasive power with a non-free Java?
The folks who write Apache Jakarta (a FLOSS Java replacement) say it’s because of Jakarta’s progress in replacing Sun’s Java, functionally speaking. There are other free software Java projects bearing down on Sun too: GNU Classpath and Kaffe, to name a couple more. In short, Sun saw the free competition on the horizon delivering a significant part of what Sun distributes under a non-free license and Sun knew they had to do something to retain an audience in the long term. This was a move to remain relevant.
Sun also released a number of videos to promote the event.
Tim O’Reilly, head of O’Reilly publishing, had an noteworthy comment in his video:
[…] Java will get incorporated into Linux[sic] distributions like Ubuntu which are, you know, very much focused on the GPL and the like, and that will harness, I think, you know, a large group beyond the core Java community. It also means that there are (as I said) these communities that feel very strongly about completely free and open licenses are gonna take another look at Java.
To some degree that is true; some groups of free software users care very much about software freedom and act accordingly. The UTUTO and gNewSense GNU/Linux distributions, for instance, don’t distribute non-free software. Not surprisingly, both have been endorsed by the Free Software Foundation.
Looking at the list of packages distributed under the Ubuntu GNU/Linux aegis (without regard to what section of the repository they’re in, because I think that distinction is so much cognitive dissonance), Ubuntu has been distributing the “ia32-sun-java5-bin” package (which is described as “Sun Java(TM) Runtime Environment (JRE) 5.0 (32-bit)”) for quite some time despite its non-free licensing.
So for Ubuntu nothing really changes; when Sun releases GPL’d code, this package can move from one section of their software repository to another section which holds free software packages. Users may need one less click of the mouse to get the package. Given Ubuntu’s add/remove software interface which encourages treating free and non-free software the same way, and their wish to make non-free software installable
with a couple of clicks (as they boasted when announcing their distribution of Opera, a non-free browser), I don’t know how one can reach the conclusion that Ubuntu GNU/Linux is “very much focused on the GPL and the like”. Canonical shuns the name “Ubuntu GNU/Linux” in favor of giving credit to the Linux kernel and themselves.
I’m sure that Canonical appreciates what free software has given them. But their reluctance to talk about software freedom for its own sake, or give credit where credit is due, and their desire to distribute non-free software right along side free software hardly makes them an exemplar of the community of people “that feel very strongly about completely free and open licenses”.