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. Raw: Battistelli's Control/Domination Over the Boards of Appeal

    An old EPO document internally voicing concerns about the lack of independence at the Boards of Appeal



  2. Raw: Conflicts of Interest of EPO Vice-President

    An old EPO concern regarding structural collisions and mixed loyalties



  3. Microsoft-Connected Patent Trolls Are Increasingly Active and Microsoft is Selling 'Protection' (Azure Subscriptions)

    There are several indications that Microsoft-connected shells, which produce no products and are threatening a large number of companies, are inadvertently if not intentionally helping Microsoft sell "indemnification" ("Azure IP Advantage," which echoes the Microsoft/Novell strategy for collecting what they called "patent royalties" one decade ago)



  4. Yes, RPost is Definitely a Patent Troll and Its Software Patents Are at Risk Thanks to Alice

    The latest whitewashing (or reputation-laundering) pieces from Watchtroll, which tries to justify patent-trolling activities with software patents, typically in the Eastern District of Texas



  5. The Latest Scams in the Patent World

    Examples of 'dirty laundry' of the patent microcosm, which it understandably does not like covering (as it harms confidence in their services/advice)



  6. Patents Are Becoming a Welfare System for the Rich and Powerful

    A culture of litigation and more recently the patenting of broad industry standards may mean that multi-billion dollar corporations are cashing in without lifting a finger



  7. Unlike the Mobile Domain, When it Comes to Cars Patent Lawsuits Remain Rare

    An optimistic note regarding the relatively low-temperature legal landscape surrounding advanced automobiles, even though patents are being amassed on software in that domain



  8. The Federal Circuit Rules (Again) in Favour of Section 101/Alice, Koch-Funded CPIP Tries to Overturn Alice at the Supreme Court

    The US Supreme Court's decision on Alice continues to have a profoundly positive impact (except for trolls) and Koch-funded academics try hard to compel the US Supreme Court to reverse/override Alice (so far to no avail)



  9. Next Director of the USPTO Parrots Talking Points of Patent Extremists and Their Lobbyists

    The next USPTO boss (still subject to official confirmation) may be little more than a power grab by the litigation and patenting 'industry', which prioritises not science and technology but its own bottom line



  10. Raw: Three Years for 'Justice' (to be Disregarded by Benoît Battistelli) at ILO and Over a Decade at the EPO

    The delays associated with ‘justice’ at the EPO (usually neither justice nor compliance with rulings) have become so extraordinary that immunity should long ago have been stripped off and Battistelli et al been held accountable



  11. Raw: Scuttling of the General Advisory Committee and Battistelli Stacking the Deck to Have 'Yes Men' as Representatives

    How the EPO broke down resistance to Battistelli’s oppressive policies not only at the Council, disciplinary committees and auditory divisions but also staff representation (symptomatic of Battistelli’s notion of justice)



  12. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board Will Endure Supreme Court Test and Overcome the Tribal Immunity “Scam”

    The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), based on the latest news, is still winning the argument and justifying its existence/importance



  13. Phones/Mobility (Trillion-Dollar Market) May Have Become Infested and Encumbered by Aggressive, Dying Companies

    The tough reality that new entrants/entrepreneurs are facing now that a few dying giants look to "monetise" their patents rather than create anything



  14. Links 9/12/2017: Mesa 17.3, Wine 3.0 RC1, New Debian Builds

    Links for the day



  15. Like the EPO, Taiwan/China (SIPO) Harm SMEs With a Policy of Patent Maximalism Which Fosters Litigation, Not Innovation

    A culture of patent maximalism breeds plenty of lawsuits in China (good for the legal ‘industry’), but small companies that are innovative lose focus and resources, just like in Europe where SMEs are discriminated against



  16. Bristows Continues to Lie About Unitary Patent (UPC) in Britain Only to Get Rebutted in Comments, As Usual (Criticism Not Deleted Yet)

    The latest wave of posts (typically from Bristows) which herald an arrival of UPC in Britain are not just delusional but also constitute terrible legal advice



  17. The European Union Now Repeats Paid Propaganda From the EPO (Regarding the Unitary Patent)

    The EPO's push for UPC, which has already involved payments to media and academia, is spreading to the EU, which unfortunately fails to uphold the Rule of Law and the spirit of the EPC



  18. European Media Covers the Latest EPO Scandal and the EPO's Refusal to Obey Orders of a Court

    European media is starting to catch up with the latest from ILO and the great importance not only of the rulings but also the EPO's response to these



  19. Antonius Tangena From the European Patent Institute (EPI) 'Aids' Željko Topić's Appointment at the European Patent Office (EPO)

    An E-mail from Antonius (Tony) Tangena reveals a degree of coordination between the EPI and the EPO -- a potentially inappropriate action that can be seen as a cover-up attempt



  20. SUEPO Announces Protest, EPO Distracts From the Scandal, and Readers Spill the Beans

    Readers have sent some additional details regarding the EPO "backstory" that we wrote about this morning



  21. EPO Scandal Spills Over to Irish Media, So It's Time for the Backstory

    A lot more is being revealed by the media this week (regarding the EPO's "war on judges") and now that it's a more 'mainstream' subject we can shed light on the background to it



  22. Battistelli's EPO is Once Again Caught in Very Gross Violation of the European Patent Convention (EPC)

    The tyranny of the EPO is made abundantly clear for all to see -- ILO included -- but will there be consequences for repeated violations by Team Battistelli?



  23. Links 7/12/2017: Qt 5.10, ReactOS 0.4.7, Guix and GuixSD 0.14.0

    Links for the day



  24. Less Than 24 Hours Later the EPO Already Refuses to Obey Court Orders From ILO (Updated)

    As expected by realists (or pessimists), the EPO continues to act as though it's above the law and even judges suffer miscarriage of justice against them



  25. ILO Said Give the Judge His Job Back, But Christoph Ernst's Administrative Council Will Likely Let Him Go (Unemployed)

    Another potential EPO scandal in the making, as after waiting for 3 years the illegally-suspended judge might get his job back for only 3 weeks



  26. Watchtroll, AIPPI, Bristows and Others Keep Pushing Software Patents Agenda (in Spite of the Ban)

    Pressure groups and front groups of the patent microcosm (e.g. AIPPI) -- sometimes even the patent microcosm acting directly -- are still trying to make software patents legitimate, usually behind closed doors, e.g. in private events where only the patent microcosm can debate the subject (no software developers allowed)



  27. Meanwhile in Eponia, Tyrant Battistelli Must be Seeking Advice on How to Refuse to Obey Court's Orders (Again)

    People already speculate about how Battistelli will attempt to come up with excuses for noncompliance (and ongoing violation of the EPC as well as ILO code)



  28. Battistelli's 'Mole' Lucy Neville-Rolfe is Still Trying to Push Unitary Patent (UPC) Through in the United Kingdom

    Lucy Neville-Rolfe is back only to tell a bunch of lies about the UPC in British Parliament and Team UPC -- the prosecution 'industry' which has been driving this entire monster -- could not be happier



  29. ILO is 'Forcing' Team Battistelli to Compensate the Banned Judge and Give Him Back His Job

    ILO has, for a change, done some justice, but it comes three years too late and the compensation level (after salary got halved) is laughable, especially considering costs associated with legal fees and moral/reputational damage



  30. International Labour Organisation/ILOAT for UPC Yet Another Problem for Unitary Patent-Style Regime

    Seeing systematic misuse and abuse of justice at the EPO, people come to realise that Europe cannot afford to create a structure like the Unified Patent Court (UPC)


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