05.15.08

Gemini version available ♊︎

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 in other sites/networks: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Reddit
  • email

Decor ᶃ Gemini Space

Below is a Web proxy. We recommend getting a Gemini client/browser.

Black/white/grey bullet button This post is also available in Gemini over at this address (requires a Gemini client/browser to open).

Decor ✐ Cross-references

Black/white/grey bullet button Pages that cross-reference this one, if any exist, are listed below or will be listed below over time.

Decor ▢ Respond and Discuss

Black/white/grey bullet button If you liked this post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed or join us now at the IRC channels.

DecorWhat Else is New


  1. Links 22/10/2021: Global Encryption Day

    Links for the day



  2. [Meme] Speaking the Same Language

    Language inside the EPO is misleading. Francophones Benoît Battistelli and António Campinos casually misuse the word “social”.



  3. António Campinos Thinks Salary Reductions Months Before He Leaves is “Exceptional Social Gesture”

    Just as Benoît Battistelli had a profound misunderstanding of the concept of “social democracy” his mate seems to completely misunderstand what a “social gesture” is (should have asked his father)



  4. IRC Proceedings: Thursday, October 21, 2021

    IRC logs for Thursday, October 21, 2021



  5. Links 21/10/2021: MX Linux 21 and Git Contributors’ Summit in a Nutshell

    Links for the day



  6. [Meme] [Teaser] Miguel de Icaza on CEO of Microsoft GitHub

    Our ongoing series, which is very long, will shed much-needed light on GitHub and its goals (the dark side is a lot darker than people care to realise)



  7. Gemini Protocol and Gemini Space Are Not a Niche; for Techrights, Gemini Means Half a Million Page Requests a Month

    Techrights on gemini:// has become very big and we’ll soon regenerate all the pages (about 37,500 of them) to improve clarity, consistency, and general integrity



  8. 'Satellite States' of EPO Autocrats

    Today we look more closely at how Baltic states were rendered 'voting fodder' by large European states, looking to rubber-stamp new and oppressive measures which disempower the masses



  9. [Meme] Don't Mention 'Brexit' to Team UPC

    It seems perfectly clear that UPC cannot start, contrary to what the EPO‘s António Campinos told the Council last week (lying, as usual) and what the EPO insinuates in Twitter; in fact, a legal challenge to this should be almost trivial



  10. The EPO’s Overseer/Overseen Collusion — Part IXX: The Baltic States

    How unlawful EPO rules were unsurprisingly supported by Benoît Battistelli‘s friends in Baltic states; António Campinos maintained those same unlawful rules and Baltic connections, in effect liaising with offices known for their corruption (convicted officials, too; they did not have diplomatic immunity, unlike Battistelli and Campinos)



  11. Links 21/10/2021: GIMP 2.99.8 Released, Hardware Shortages, Mozilla Crisis

    Links for the day



  12. How Oppressive Governments and Web Monopolists Might Try to Discourage Adoption of Internet Protocols Like Gemini

    Popular movements and even some courageous publications have long been subverted by demonisation tactics, splits along unrelated grounds (such as controversial politics) and — failing that — technical sabotage and censorship; one must familiarise oneself with commonly-recurring themes of social control by altercation



  13. [Meme] Strike Triangulations, Reception Issues

    Financial strangulations for Benoît Battistelli‘s unlawful “Strike Regulations”? The EPO will come to regret 2013…



  14. [Meme] Is Saying “No!” to Unlawful Proposals Considered “Impolite”?

    A ‘toxic mix’ of enablers and cowards (who won’t vote negatively on EPO proposals which they know to be unlawful) can serve to show that the EPO isn’t a “social democracy” as Benoît Battistelli liked to call it; it’s just a dictatorship, currently run by the son of a person who actually fought dictatorship



  15. IRC Proceedings: Wednesday, October 20, 2021

    IRC logs for Wednesday, October 20, 2021



  16. [Meme] EPO Legal Sophistry and Double Dipping

    An imaginary EPO intercept of Administrative Council discussions in June 2013...



  17. Links 21/10/2021: PostgreSQL JDBC 42.3.0 and Maui Report

    Links for the day



  18. [Meme] [Teaser] “Judge a Person Both by His Friends and Enemies”

    Fervent supporters of Team Battistelli or Team Campinos (a dark EPO era) are showing their allegiances; WIPO and EPO have abused staff similarly over the past decade or so



  19. 'Cluster-Voting' in the European Patent Office/Organisation (When a Country With 1.9 Million Citizens Has the Same Voting Power as a Country With 83.1 Million Citizens)

    Today we examine who has been running the Finnish patent office and has moreover voted in the EPO during the ballot on unlawful "Strike Regulations"; they voted in favour of manifestly illegal rules and for 8.5 years after that (including last Wednesday) they continued to back a shady regime which undermines the EPO's mission statement



  20. The EPO’s Overseer/Overseen Collusion — Part XVIII: Helsinki's Accord

    The Finnish outpost has long been strategic to the EPO because it can help control the vote of four or more nations; evidence suggests this has not changed



  21. [Meme] Living as a Human Resource, Working for Despots

    The EPO has become a truly awful place/employer to work for; salary is 2,000 euros for some (despite workplace stress, sometimes relocation to a foreign country)



  22. Links 20/10/2021: New Redcore Linux and Hospital Adoption of GNU Health

    Links for the day



  23. IRC Proceedings: Tuesday, October 19, 2021

    IRC logs for Tuesday, October 19, 2021



  24. Links 19/10/2021: Karanbir Singh Leaves CentOS Board, GPL Violations at Vizio

    Links for the day



  25. [Meme] Giving the Knee

    The 'knee' champion Kratochvìl and 'kneel' champion Erlingsdóttir are simply crushing the law; they’re ignoring the trouble of EPO staff and abuses of the Office, facilitated by the Council itself (i.e. facilitated by themselves)



  26. Josef Kratochvìl Rewarded Again for Covering Up EPO Corruption and the EPO Bribes the Press for Lies Whilst Also Lying About Its Colossal Privacy Violations

    Corrupt officials and officials who actively enable the crimes still control the Office and also the body which was supposed to oversee it; it's pretty evident and clear judging by this week's press statements at the EPO's official Web site



  27. [Meme] Sorry, Wrong Country (Or: Slovenia isn't Great Britain)

    Team UPC is trying to go ahead with a total hoax which a high-level European court would certainly put an end to (if or when a referral is initiated)



  28. How Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden Voted on Patently Unlawful Regulations at the EPO

    We look back and examine what happened 8 years ago when oppressed staff was subjected to unlawful new “regulations” (long enjoyed by António Campinos, the current EPO autocrat)



  29. The EPO’s Overseer/Overseen Collusion — Part XVII: The Non-Monolithic Nordic Bloc

    We start our investigation of how countries in northern Europe ended up voting on the unlawful “Strike Regulations” at the EPO and why



  30. Proof That Windows “11” is a Hoax

    Guest post by Ryan, reprinted with permission


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

Recent Posts