EditorsAbout the SiteComes vs. MicrosoftUsing This Web SiteSite ArchivesCredibility IndexOOXMLOpenDocumentPatentsNovellNews DigestSite NewsRSS

05.15.08

MySQL Juggles Business Models, Life with Sun, and Software Patents

Posted in Database, Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, GPL, Interview, Microsoft, Oracle, Patents, SUN at 8:36 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Increasingly, as MySQL grows mightier, it is likely to find itself under greater pressure. Part of this pressure is not a competitive one as much as it is pressure which revolves around loyalty. Balancing customer trust against the need for revenue can be hard sometimes. Loyalty to shareholders often antagonizes market requirements, too.

Another vector of risk is the relentless attempt to write and exploit new laws that essentially contradict the GNU Public License (GPL) and therefore sideline or exclude free software, of which MySQL is one. The bigger and more disruptive MySQL becomes, the more attractive a scapegoat it will be. To say this more explicitly, as MySQL attracts more customers at the expense of its counterparts, software patent trolls and vocal critics will more likely paint it their target.

From a public relations and legal perspective, it’s typically easier when you are an underdog because you receive sympathy. But MySQL is growing up, so let’s take a look at some new barriers it will probably face, or is already facing.

Another Storm in a Teacup

In order to better understand the sensitivity of the issue at hand, it’s worth recognizing the importance of MySQL. To many IT professionals, MySQL is a vital ingredient in their stack. It is the engine that organizes and stores personal data. This trend is here to stay, particularly because Web-based applications continue to gain traction. Just as people wish to control their data and escape lock-in, they also wish to have a sense of control over their database, i.e. the software which lies beneath processing, interpreting and delivering this data to other layers of the stack. MySQL offers peace of mind to many.

How quickly things can change though. Inaccurate news broke loose in Slashdot a few weeks ago, insinuating that MySQL was gradually going closed-source. The almost-immediate backlash, which was further fueled and exacerbated by a few sensationalist articles, played a partial role in convincing MySQL to keep the core of the program purely GPL-licensed, essentially backtracking on a decision that had previously been made. Above all, MySQL wanted to keep its users happy. It needed to cope with new types of pressure.

This rather fundamental strategic change was nothing new. Contrary to common belief, MySQL’s revised strategy had been adopted before Sun Microsystems even entered the picture and the company still intends to make some peripheral components (addons) of MySQL proprietary. It’s seen as controversial by those who argue that MySQL’s business potential could equally well be exploited using support and customization services, not sales of proprietary software. Interestingly enough, MySQL did not start off as free software. The same goes for the Linux kernel, which elected the GPL only in 1992.

This latest storm surrounding MySQL has died out by now, but it led me to some amicable conversations with Mårten Mickos, the CEO of MySQL, who is also a Database Senior Vice President at Sun Microsystems following the 1-billion dollar acquisition of his company. Selective responses from him are quoted later on, but I continue to reflect on MySQL’s likely direction with the open confession that I have bias in favor of the GPL’s merits and awareness of existing external threats to it.

MySQL’s Business Model Dilemma

MySQL is unique in the sense that it has become an almost de facto database for GNU/Linux-powered servers (and to an extent Apache also). This gives it an enormous, yet hidden, presence in the World Wide Web. It thrives in a huge userbase and can boast over 100 million downloads of the software so far.

“More recent attempts to change the business model saw a shift from introducing inconveniences to actual restriction imposed on access…”MySQL’s monetization of this success — as measured in terms of popularity or ubiquity — is another story due to its relatively low ‘conversion rate’, i.e. the number of users who turn into paying customers. The ratio recently stood at about 1000:1, which means that only one in a thousand users also becomes a paying customer.

Over the past couple of years, MySQL has earned itself some new critics for subtle changes to its business model. The latest incident, which was mentioned above, is no exception. Examples of controversial moves involve the availability of latest versions of the software and the state of the software which made is available (e.g. pre-compiled program versus source code). There was also a colossal case of misunderstanding last year when discrimination against Debian was wrongly claimed. Unfortunately, such misconceptions and errors live on.

More recent attempts to change the business model saw a shift from introducing inconveniences to actual restriction imposed on access, with the exception of paying customers who receive binaries. In essence, they must handle executable files without accompanying source code, which sometimes translates into lock-in and helplessness, feature- and security-wise. But it didn’t take. MySQL changed its mind. Sort of.

It’s important to remember that when MySQL announced its strategic reversal a week ago, at least as far as the core product is concerned, not much was changed as far as the business model goes. Only its scope was altered and impact thus limited.

To the company’s credit, it did listen. It did take feedback about MySQL into account after the backlash. By all means, it is preferable to inquire about controversial things — keeping users in the loop so to speak — as opposed to making quiet or surprise announcements. The GPL is all about giving users real control, as well as a sense of control over direction of development and whatever they do on their personal computers or servers. Distribution of binaries, for example, does not permit this.

Free software is still scarcely explored in the business sense, but many choose to think of it mainly as a question of control (open source), not just freedom. These two strengths are separate, but not mutually exclusive. One problem that remains with the aforementioned approach, namely the making peripheral components proprietary, is that it turns products as a whole into the equivalent of trial version of software where users get trapped in, then charged premium rates for non-free extensions which they cannot study, modify, or redistribute.

The situation above highlights yet another limiting factor, which can be used as an argument filled with substance against free software — especially software which goes down this particular route at the end. With dual-licensing, the software loses its distinguisher, its added value. For opponents of free software it serves as a fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) argument which may be stronger than “free software relies on support services, so it’s made shoddy for revenue.”

It’s possible to think of all sorts of ways to monetize use with minimal disruption and obtrusion. Some companies already do this with great success. I approached Richard Stallman for his opinion on this and he insisted that it is not just a question of profit. “I don’t think much about the question of what is more profitable, because I am constantly urging people to think about what is ethical and what is not,” he said.

Software Patents

Software patents are an odd duck because they are valid only in a few countries and their economic merits are repeatedly doubted. They typically serve an affluent minority. A controversial issue that came up back in February was the disappearance of MySQL’s rebellious policy on software patents. The acquisition by Sun had an effect on it.

Scott Mace started a big discussion at the time about Sun’s view on software patents and what it all means to MySQL. Sun weighed in, but nonetheless, a fairly brave Web page that protests against software patents did not return after it had been taken down. It has only been amended since then, in order to reflect on convergence or symbiosis of policies. Not everyone was pleased.

“What will prevent MySQL from getting not only further restricted — feature-wise — but also sensitive to software patent baggage?”It’s clear that large companies like Sun can benefit a lot from their patent portfolios. In contrast, how many software patents does MySQL have? MySQL inside Sun can make it an attractive target for patent trolls. Sun has plenty of money and free software projects living under the umbrella of large companies translate into less ‘community backlash’. Think about circumstances where they come under attack that’s akin to that from Trend Micro, as opposed to NetApp, which attacked the titan called Sun. What will prevent MySQL from getting not only further restricted — feature-wise — but also sensitive to software patent baggage? What prevents a company with software patents on database technology from finding ‘artistic’ ways to extract money from MySQL users, e.g. via Web hosts, directly from Sun, or even by approaching customers (especially large companies) and making secret deals, just as Microsoft did?

I approached Mårten Mickos for a comment and his take on this was as follows: “As long as we have software patents legally in our market, the owners of such patents may try to make money on them in FOSS environments, and some will succeed.

“Fortunately there are companies with patents that don’t use them in this way. I am not an expert on Sun’s practice in this regard, but my impression is that Sun hasn’t used it patents for revenue extraction from users or producers of free software,” he concluded.

To be fair, Sun seems to have used its patents only defensively in recent years (examples include NetApp and Kodak). The company’s CEO even offered to defend Linux using Sun’s patents. However, to an extent, it seems like a case of fighting fire with fire while at the same time trying to extinguish the fire by opposing expansion of software patent laws into Europe.

It’s very doubtful that larger companies like Sun will be willing to just throw away their portfolios and annul their software patents altogether, especially after heavy investments that brought competitive advantage. Simon Phipps insists that there is an obligation to shareholders, but by hogging they become not the solution and therefore part of the problem. This may also lead to a separate public relations problem.

As people from FFII might say, based on their extensive experience, a company’s defensive patent becomes offensive when the company gets weaker and therefore feels cornered. The solution lies in invalidation of software patents. To use an analogy, letting more nations have nuclear weapons to neutralize attacks or to counter-attack does not make the world safer. Disarmament does. At the end of the day, large companies that benefit from the existing (and very controversial) system can typically just offer crocodile tears whenever this issue gets raised.

Fighting at All Costs, for Cost

Adoption of free software is still hindered by several key factors. A previous article highlighted problems that tend to escape many people’s attention. A continuous change of laws, for example, can be used to harm free software’s legality or at least put some clouds over its head.

It has unfortunately become a political question. Look not for scientists’ opinions but look mainly at shareholders, lobbyists, lawyers, and lawmakers. It is usually them who call the shots nowadays. Government opposition to an anticipated patent reform, followed by another discouraging outlook further confirmed this very recently. Then again, some say this entire reform was pointless from the very start. It strives to eliminate elements that large companies do not like while keeping in tact the rest which brings benefit to them and ensures monopolization prevails.

The GPL version 3 (GPLv3) was intended to address a few of the problems that are associated with software patents. GPLv4 has already been mentioned by Richard Stallman, who foresees further potential threats to the four essential freedoms that protect and sustain the freedom of software. Free software ought never to turn into something which is neither Free (libre) nor free (gratis). Software patents laws are a great risk to this.

At the moment, MySQL’s CEO does not rule out GPLv3 as a future option and at least a consideration, provided the market matures and adopts this licence too. “We think GPL 3 is great (better than GPL2), and we will move to it when we believe that it is also well accepted among users and customers. Wide acceptance was the reasoning we used for moving to GPL 2 and that’s the reasoning we’ll use for version 3,” says Mårten Mickos. Sun has already made one component of xVM GPLv3-licensed (Ops Center virtualisation to be specific), so it’s apparent that Sun hasn’t any idealogical or fundamental resistance to it.

In summary, MySQL is likely to face issues that are associated with ways of extracting revenue from its users. Another largely forgotten issue is the increased pressure from the outside to extract revenue for collisions involving ideas, especially ones pertaining to algorithms. MySQL ought to ensure that it can keep free software as free as it has always been, but these challenges may not be trivial to address.

Share this post: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Reddit
  • co.mments
  • DZone
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn
  • NewsVine
  • Print
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis
  • Facebook

If you liked this post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed or join us now at the IRC channels.

Pages that cross-reference this one

What Else is New


  1. Great News: While IBM et al Try to Undermine Patent Reform the Supreme Court Deepens the Reform in TC Heartland Case

    In a unanimous decision, with the court ruling 8-0 against TC Heartland, the monkey business in East Texas (beneficial to patent trolls and large businesses that leverage software patents) may have just come to an end



  2. Speculations About Battistelli's End of Term, Campinos at EUIPO, and Failed UPC Ambitions

    Rumours and speculations surrounding the fate of the EPO's leadership now that the UPC gravy train is stuck again and Battistelli's protector, Jesper Kongstad, is about to leave



  3. Martijn van Dam is Wrong to Believe That Battistelli's Abuses Are Somehow Acceptable or Tolerable Because His Term is Possibly Ending

    Coverage of Martijn van Dam’s stance (he is the Dutch State Secretary for Economic Affairs) reveals that economic gain trumps ethics and justice, irrespective of what the law says



  4. Media and Staff Association Elections at EPO and WIPO Are Compromised

    A campaign of abuse (legal bullying) and gifting to the media, combined with a wide-ranging assault on critics who represent the interests of staff, have led WIPO and EPO down the route to totality



  5. New Documents Help Demonstrate That ILO Delivers Institutional Injustice to EPO Employees and Cushions Team Battistelli

    The International Labour Organisation Administrative Tribunal (ILOAT) delivers not justice but merely the illusion of justice, probably in defiance of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)



  6. Leaked: 2017 European Inventor Award Finalists, or Stooges Whom the Tyrant Battistelli Exploits for PR Purposes and Media Manipulation

    The stupidest ceremony in Europe (turning serious science into something sketchy such as Eurovision) is disliked among EPO staff and is exploited by the person who destroys the EPO (Benoît Battistelli) to pretend all is fine and dandy, at huge expense to the Office (as extraordinary as about 5 million Euros for a ~2-hour show)



  7. EPO: Can the Staff Union of the European Patent Office (SUEPO) Still Save It?

    Genuine concerns about the slow process at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the lack of progress at ILO, which coincide with weakening of the unions and threat to jobs of patent examiners (leaving ordinary Europeans more vulnerable to meritless patent lawsuits)



  8. Links 21/5/2017: Linux 3.18.53, Tizen 4.0

    Links for the day



  9. Cloudflare's Enemy is Software Patents, Not Just One Software Patent or One Patent Troll

    With a bounty of $50,000, which is likely less than the cost of legal defense, Cloudflare looks for help with its own case rather than the underlying issues that need tackling worldwide



  10. Patent Laws -- and Especially Eligibility of Software Patents -- Are Being Hijacked by Large Corporations and Their Front Groups

    Intervention by large multinational corporations and their lawyers, front groups, etc. (like the classic lobbying model) gives room for concern in multiple continents where most software development is done



  11. Links 18/5/2017: Catching Up With the Past Three Days

    Links for the day



  12. The US Supreme Court Consults USPTO Director Michelle Lee Regarding the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) Which is Invalidating Software Patents With CAFC's Approval

    Software patents continue to get knocked out by the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) whose introduction of PTAB gave a helping hand to companies that are susceptible to abusive litigation (with bogus patents)



  13. IBM and Its Revolving Doors Lobby Are Plotting to Undermine Supreme Court Rulings to Restore Patentability of Software

    IBM has become so evil that it is now trying to steal democracy, label programmers "thieves", and basically attack the rule of law by extra-judicially overturning a Supreme Court decision



  14. 3 Years After the Alice Case at the Supreme Court the Plague of Software Patents is Easier to Cope With

    Litigation figures are down, rejection rates of software patents remain high, and only spin (e.g. cherry-picking) or constant lobbying can save those who used to profit from software patents



  15. The Attacks of Patent Trolls as Outlined in the Media This Past Week

    An outline of some of the latest troll cases to be aware of and their consequences too (e.g. software patents being used to literally shut down entire programs)



  16. Links 14/5/2017: Linux 4.12 RC1 and KDE Frameworks 5.34.0

    Links for the day



  17. Industry Giants Challenge Qualcomm's Patent Practices While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Closely Examines Such Behavior

    Scrutiny of Qualcomm's patent aggression and coercion -- scrutiny that can profoundly change the way software patents, SEPs and FRAND are viewed -- as seen in various amicus briefs (amici) from industry giants that are affected



  18. Professor Lisa Larrimore Ouellette Questions Whether Patents Work When Patent Scope is Too Broad

    Citing MIT economist (and MacArthur “genius”) Heidi Williams, Professor Lisa Larrimore Ouellette from Stanford challenges old myths and quotes: “we still have essentially no credible empirical evidence on the seemingly simple question of whether stronger patent rights—either longer patent terms or broader patent rights—encourage research investments.”



  19. OIN is Still a Distraction Unless We Want GNU/Linux to Coexist With Software Patents (Rather Than Eliminate Those)

    Another wave of media coverage by/for the Open Invention Network (OIN) necessitates a reminder of what OIN stands for and why it is not tackling the biggest problems which Free/Open Source software (FOSS) faces



  20. Links 13/5/2017: Neptune Plasma 5 ISO, a Shift to Free (FOSS) Databases

    Links for the day



  21. Countries With a Dozen European Patents Are an Easy Photo-Op 'Sell' for Battistelli While the EPO's Demise is Largely Ignored by the Patent Microcosm

    Behind the façade of legitimacy, the EPO suffers from an incompetent, insecure and delusional boss, whose actions will almost certainly lead to the collapse of both the Office and the entire Organisation (whose founding document he routinely shreds to pieces)



  22. Our Assessment: Unitary Patent (UPC) Will Crumble Along With Battistelli's Regime at the EPO

    A reflection and an opinion on where the EPO stands and what it means for the UPC, which doesn't seem to be going anywhere (it's all talk and lobbying)



  23. The European Patent Office Has a Long History/Track Record of 'Screwing' Contractors

    The European Patent Office (EPO) appears to have quite an extensive track record/reputation for ‘screwing’ contractors and then misusing immunity to get away with it



  24. Links 12/5/2017: Wine 2.8, Kdenlive 17.04.1, NHS Windows Syndrome

    Links for the day



  25. Links 11/5/2017: New OpenShot, GIMP, and GNOME (3.24.2)

    Links for the day



  26. The Sickness of the EPO – Part IX: Using Confidential Medical Records as a Weapon Against Staff

    In defiance/violation of labour laws and medical oaths etc. the EPO is passing around medical information, either for dismissal pretexts or a sort of blackmail -- a serious abuse in its own right



  27. The EPO is in Disarray and Additional Complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) May Be Imminent

    Team Battistelli reaps what it has sown, as complaints are being made to a court with “47 member states [that] are contracting parties to the Convention,” (European Convention on Human Rights) according to Wikipedia



  28. By Promoting the UPC, in Defiance of Public Will, the EPO Has Become Patent Trolls' Best Friend

    The patent–industrial complex, aided by the EPO under Battistelli's iron-fisted reign, is trying to convince us that the UPC is coming soon and that it is desirable (it's neither of those things)



  29. Links 10/5/2017: Mesa 17.1, Git 2.13, Qt Creator 4.3 RC1, MINIX 3.4 RC6

    Links for the day



  30. Team UPC Still Twists and Fabricates Statements to Make It Seem Like Unitary Patent is Happening Soon

    The Unified Patent Court (UPC), a terrible system which was envisioned and covertly constructed by those who stand to benefit/profit from injunctions and trolling, is not going anywhere, but media which is dominated by Team UPC would have us believe otherwise


CoPilotCo

RSS 64x64RSS Feed: subscribe to the RSS feed for regular updates

Home iconSite Wiki: You can improve this site by helping the extension of the site's content

Home iconSite Home: Background about the site and some key features in the front page

Chat iconIRC Channel: Come and chat with us in real time

CoPilotCo

Recent Posts