Sun's Schwartz Stands Against Technological Colonialism

Company president says the General Public License for open-source software hinders innovation in the developing world.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

April 6, 2005

3 Min Read

Sun Microsystems president Jonathan Schwartz believes that open-source software-code licenses must change to avoid hindering software innovation in developing countries.

Schwartz in particular targeted the General Public License, used by many open-source initiatives, in a talk before 700 attendees of the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. Under the GPL, developers are required to publish or "give back" their work to the general community. Such licensing practices work to the advantage of the United States, which already enjoys a technology lead over many parts of the world, Schwartz said.

"I do not believe in intellectual-property colonialism," he declared.

Sun took a sounder approach in using the Mozilla Public License as the model for its Sun Community Development and Distribution License, Schwartz said. The CDDL was created for OpenSolaris, the open-source version of Sun's Unix operating system. Sun will make Solaris 10 available as open-source code sometime in the second quarter. The CDDL allows proprietary products to be built on top of open-source code and allows a Third World developer to produce a product for sale in the United States and elsewhere.

Schwartz said he has talked to representatives from academic institutions and developing countries that want the opportunity to sell software they produce with open-source code. The GPL inflicts "a rather predatory obligation to disgorge their IP [intellectual property] back to the wealthiest nation in the world," the United States, he noted. Instead of meeting such a requirement, poorer societies need the right to use open-source code to "bootstrap" their own economic development, he said.

But not everyone agrees. On Wednesday at the same conference, a supporter of Third World development, Lawrence Lessig, law professor at Stanford University and founder of the school's Center for the Internet and Society, expressed doubt that the GPL was a future source of technological imperialism.

Lessig said he has discussed the issue with Brazilians, and they were less concerned with the terms of open-source licenses than with not having access to the technology at all. Members of the Brazilian government told him Microsoft representatives have warned them that open-source software costs more in total cost of ownership than Windows, he said. The Brazilians told him, "We'd rather invest in a free-software infrastructure. It buys commitment to Brazilian society, building up computing expertise, as opposed to sending our capital abroad," Lessig said.

Lessig also expressed doubts that Sun would realize all the gains it hopes to by releasing an open-source version of its Solaris operating system.

Sun seeks to create a global community of Solaris developers that will bring renewed vigor and add value around Sun's version of Unix, similar to the phenomenon that surrounds Linux Schwartz said. "We're expecting more revenue as a result."

"I think Sun made a mistake," Lessig said. "If it's betting [OpenSolaris and other prospective Sun open-source code] will generate a lot of innovation around their products, I doubt it." He cautioned that he wasn't an expert at predicting which technology companies will thrive or decline.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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