Red Hat buys JBoss: My Mixed Reaction

by Tim O'Brien

You can buy software, but you can't buy "community".

When IBM bought Gluecode, they didn't buy Geronimo. It is a common misperception to think that IBM bought Geronimo, the application server, and that the Geronimo project is now synonymous with IBM. To the contrary, because of the Apache license, no one will ever be able to "buy" the Geronimo code. If anything, the IBM purchase of Gluecode was an investment in an open community, and an open commercial eco-system that continues to expand. Red Hat's purchase of JBoss is a completely different story. Why? The supposedly "free" GPL, actually encourages consolidation of corporate influence over a codebase. By purchasing JBoss, Red Hat has effectively become the original copyright owner of a codebase licensed under a reciprocal license. Because of this license, Red Hat can, indeed, "buy" the JBoss project's source code and community all in one perfect corporate transaction. While I'm happy for the few JBoss employees I know, I'm not exactly celebrating the consolidation of corporate power over open source on...


Dalibor Topic
2006-04-10 16:22:16
Dude, you're just fudding around. Did the GPL eat your breakfast cereals, or something? JBoss is under the LGPL, get your facts staight next time around.

dalibor topic

Tim O'Brien
2006-04-10 17:53:37
Dalibor, of course JBoss is LGPL, any else would be impractical given the way most Java products are packaged and distributed. Can you imagine Hibernate being licensed under GPL terms, no one would use it.

The problem isn't USE of GPL or LGPL, it is the control that FSF licenses give the corporate entity that holds the original copyright holder. Just so it is more straightforward, if you contribute to a project run by a single corporate entity that is the original copyright owner - they can dual license your work. They can distribute software under a different license, but you, the contributor cannot. They give lip service to "freedom", you take the bait, and contribute, they turn around and integrate your contribution into a separately licensed commercial version. This is if you weren't smart enough to slap your own name down there on the copyright notice, but try that with JBoss and see what they do.

This is the imbalance that is present in JBoss regardless of GPL vs. LGPL. Sure, I can distribute JBoss to my hearts content, the problem is what motivation do I have to give back. If you ask me, none. Giving to a corporate owned (L)GPL project isn't helping the Free Sofware Community, it is helping that specific corporation.

Dalibor, you misunderstand this piece as anti-GPL FUD. It isn't. The GPL and LGPL are fine, I try to avoid them as much as possible, but there are clear instances where the LGPL option (Hibernate) beats the pants off the Apache-licensed alternative (OJB). This entry is about (L)GPL projects owned by commercial interests, and the control tha being the sole copyright owner gives you.

Seriously read Stallman's double speak about why you shouldn't use LGPL, in this piece from 1999 he states "Proprietary software developers have the advantage of money; free software developers need to make advantages for each other." I'm not going to call MySQL AB and Red Hat "free software developers", while one aspect of the business might be free software, each of these companies is making substantial money from proprietary software licensing. The LGPL and GPL were created for individuals not corporations.

2006-04-10 17:55:50
I've always disliked the GPL license because of some of the same problems you address here: the license is too militant in it's enforcing of "openness". People should be able to take code and use it how they want, not be tied to some paranoid license that demands that you make no money and keep everything "open". It gives me too much of the "money and profit are evil" vibe which seems to plague portions of the open source community (that particular vibe is the reason that there are still morons out there who claim that things like the KDE Desktop are better GUI's than Windows).

Open source is all about donating code, and donating means giving away. If you ask me, bitching about the fact that someone has taken a codebase you've contributed to and made millions off of your donated work is a little sad.

And let's say this were to actually happen? Some company sells an a version of an open source product that you've heavily contributed to and makes millions in the process. Well guess what: you'd make one hell of a consultant, and I hear that pays well ;)

Adam Constabaris
2006-04-10 21:46:47
I'm a little puzzled by the argument here. I don't see how the Apache or BSD licenses make a huge difference in the scenario of an OSS codebase where the copyright on most of the codebase belongs to a single corporate entity. An Apache'd codebase largely contributed by a single entity is in most ways just as vulnerable to the controlling entity 'taking its ball home' as a GPL'd codebase is.

The original author holds the copyright on the code unless some other entity obtains that copyright from the original author; that's true whether or not the contribution is to an existing GPL codebase. The doomsday scenario depends on the subsequent contributors to a GPL codebase assigning their copyrights to the original contributor, but the GPL in and of itself does not (and cannot) require any such assignation.

So it's simply not true that the GPL in and of itself is a one-way street, where the original contributor holds all the copyright cards; it's a good thing that's not actually what you're arguing -- although comments such as "they can dual license your work" muddy the waters a bit, especially since that's exactly what BSD/Apache licenses *do* allow. I think you're trying to point to an asymmetry with the GPL, but I'm not sure what it is.

Holding the original copyright, in combination with being the primary funder of development on the GPL codebase, means it's possible to retain the threat of closing off your *future* contributions -- however, anything already provided under the GPL will still be available under the GPL. What the 'primary codeholder' *cannot* do -- unless you've entered into a separate agreement that allows this -- is distribute
a closed source product based off of your contributions to the GPLed codebase 'they' (largely) created.

I don't see any indications that JBoss or Red Hat have ever made such a threat: their stated models for making money off of the L/GPL'd software they develop is that, being the leading experts on that software, they are in the best position to provide support for it.

The Apache and BSD licenses do nothing to address the issue of copyright. They also do nothing to address the "primary shareholder" issue, as far as I can tell; as noted, under these licenses, the original main contributor *CAN* take your contributions and relicense them. The available models for making money from developing Apache/BSD licensed software are, as far as I can tell, not all that different from the one JBoss and RH say they are pursuing.

The chief difference is that these licenses allow the 'secondary contributors' (for lack of a better term) the right of retaliating in kind. This might suggest that there's an asymmetry: if you've taken the 'poison pill' of the original GPL contribution, you can't thereafter refuse to distribute modifications where the original contributor can't get back at them. But you can't do that if you're going to continue a community based around the Apache license either. So the asymmetry I gestured at above might be nothing more than this: with Apache you have the right to start a closed source fork off of the original codebase. But I don't see how that helps an *open source* community.

What I'm saying is that I need to hear more to be convinced there's a specific problem with the GPL.

Tim O'Brien
2006-04-10 23:02:24
Adam, the piece's point: GPL in the hands of a community controlling corporation is an artificial barrier to growth. From where I sit, it discourages participation. Why invest any non-trivial amount of time in an open-source project that exists as a proxy for a commercial interest?

I'm not arguing that you are prohibited from assigning Copyright to your own innovation to yourself, but try contributing this code to JBoss, Inc. and ask them to perserve you as the sole copyright holder. Tell JBoss that you are licensing your contribution to them under the terms of the LGPL.

On the other hand, if I contribute code to Apache Jackrabbit tomorrow, Day Software could resell this code just as much as I could resell Day Software's code. No questions asked. Collective Work Copyright 2006 Apache Software Foundation: I'm not putting my work under Copyright 2006 Day Software even through they might be the most active contributors. If I contribute to Jackrabbit I might be indirectly contributing to Day Software, but I'm perfectly happy with this arrangement because the same is true for contributions from Day Software to Jackrabbit. To use your analogy, Apache License really is a two way street.

"What the 'primary codeholder' *cannot* do -- unless you've entered into a separate agreement that allows this -- is distribute
a closed source product based off of your contributions to the GPLed codebase 'they' (largely) created."

Sure they can, try contributing code to JBoss, ask them not to place the copyright notice on the file. See what happens. Sure you'll be listed as an individual contributor. but they can do what they like with your contribution.

It's not the license, it's the combination of the license and the corporate sponsored open source project.

Carlos Sanchez
2006-04-11 00:35:31
Talking about wrong facts... I can tell you that Mergere employs way more developers than 4-5 working on Maven ;)
2006-04-11 04:50:42
I was very happy to read your comment.
I feel a little bit less alone. Everyone is congratulating Mr Fleury and JBoss. Ok, it is a good thing that one can make money with Open Source.
But I am afraid that this business model will cost a lot to the Open Source Community. I don't think developpers will contribute to OS projects if they see that someone else is selling their work without giving them a penny.
I feel very unconfortable with that.
The OS community will have to distinguish between real Open Source and "Business" Open Source. I don't know if a license will offer enough garantee. I am not a specialist of GPL vs LPGPL.
But a solution has to be found. Especially when we see major companies (IBM, Oracle,Sun) being more and more involved in Open Source projects.
Bernard Sumption
2006-04-11 05:31:39
The real problem here is not the license, it is the original copyright of an open-source project being owned by a corporate entity. When this happens then entity is ripe for acquisition whether they release their copyrighted code under the GPL, Apache License or any other.
Tim O'Brien
2006-04-11 06:38:33
Carlos, yes, from what I know Mergere employs a good number of developers here and abroad, I'll clarify what I said, Mergere employs a few direct contributors, that's all I'm focusing on. Trainers, consultants, etc. not counted in that number.
Tim O'Brien
2006-04-11 06:41:50
Bernard, yes, the problem is about a corporate entity controlling the codebase. But, at a certain level, it is about the license, when a codebase is licensed under GPL or LGPL, reciprocity kicks in and if you want to improve the core codebase you are forced to assimilate with the Borg.
Adam Constabaris
2006-04-11 06:58:49
Tim, OK, that's where I thought you wanted to place the emphasis. I don't think we were disagreeing about the facts, but only about how serious a problem it is. I'll agree that I would be slightly less likely to assign non-reciprocated copyrights to a corporate entity, and to that extent the combination of GPL PLUS copyright assignment is less conducive to fostering an open source community than a GPL driven community where exclusive copyright is retained by the original contributors.

I don't think that's the right comparison to make, however. Ask yourself: what would be the difference if JBoss were using ASL or BSD and continued to ask for non-reciprocated copyright (I realize, from the point of view of the ASL, copyright assignment doesn't matter as much)? If my analysis is correct, the cash value of the difference between the ASL and GPL on this score is that under the ASL, I retain the right to start a *closed source* fork using the entire codebase. Insofar as the open source aspect of the project matters to me, though, retaining this right does not motivate me.

So, roughly, I guess I'm agreeing with what Bernard Sumption said, only more verbosely ;)

JD Evora
2006-04-11 08:29:57
>Just so it is more straightforward, if you contribute to a
>project run by a single corporate entity that is the
>original copyright owner - they can dual license your work
Are you sure about that???

My understanding was that they could double-license their work and use my under the same license that I released it (GPL/LGPL)

If they want to release MY CODE under a comercial license I have to give them those rights first.

Marcus Breese
2006-04-11 08:44:56
You really need to be more explict regarding the concept of derivative works. Your problem isn't with the GPL, it's with copyright assignment on contributions. The GPL is a two way street (as was pointed out). My contribution to a GPL project is licensed back to the project under the GPL... meaning, they can't dual-license my contributions to the project unless there is a different copyright assignment mechanism in place.

So, your problem isn't with the GPL (Linus seems to be doing just fine with it). Your problem is with corporate management of GPL projects. So long as a company wants to sell a copy of a GPL project under a different licenese, they need to have the rights to all of the contributions. This is the same reason as to why Sun requires you to fill out a copyright assignment form to make contributions to

And really all the dual-licensed approach means is that the original copyright holder may sell a closed-source version of their product. Now, you are free to make your own fork of the original, but you can't sell a closed source product based on that fork w/o obtaining an appropriate license from the original copyright holder. Now, no one is really going to do this, but it doesn't really stop you from making the fork and releasing it under the GPL.

Tim O'Brien
2006-04-11 19:50:55
Re: JD and Marcus, read the previous comments. Assigning copyright to JBoss is a precondition for participating in that community. This limits participation in the "community". Sure I can go write customizations and slap my own copyright notice on them, but they will never make it back into the core project. Never.

JD, of course Linus happy with the GPL, he's assigned the Copyright to the FSF - - Big difference here. Again, re-emphasizing this fact - my problem isn't with the GPL or LGPL per se, it is with the chilling effect that copyright assignment to a corporation creates.

Rickard Öberg
2006-04-12 05:46:15
Just a note on JBoss copyright: a number of the initial authors, me included, still retain the copyright of the code we wrote, which means that it is not possible to dual-license JBoss even if the vast majority of the code is indeed owned by JBoss Inc. and any new code is submitted with JBoss Inc. as copyright holder. Unless, of course, they decide to pay me (and the others) a shitload of money in order to buy the copyright. That would work >:-)
Tim O'Brien
2006-04-12 07:18:16
re: Rickard, glad you pulled that arrangement off, but I've never acknowledged or been a big fan of multiple Copyright assignments, especially as they apply to open source projects. As an initial contributor I think you are in a different situation than most.

Jim Barnett of BEA recently summed up some objections to the LGPL that I tend to resonate with.

2006-04-12 07:55:10
Tim, couldn't agree more. I think multiple copyrights suck, and I think LGPL sucks. I'm especially tired of the whole "LGPL is more businessfriendly" bunk that the JBoss Inc. folks spew forth. If I could do everything over again I would have had a single copyright owner and BSD as license. Now that I'm slightly older and minutely wiser it seems like a much saner way to do things. But, such is life that you don't get second chances with things like this.
2006-04-12 08:16:12
Tim, I think your piece is a bit shallow in the cases you present. Imagine there is a company that needs some improvements/customizations in JBoss before it can deploy it. The company performs the development and if it works, they will already gain some value from this. The next logical step is to attempt to contribute that code JBoss, for the simple reason because it will be maintained in all future versions. I think 99% of the companies would accept a copyright transfer in this case, because the improvements are already valuable and it saves them the cost of the maintenance for future versions. Sure, Marc Fleury could make money with it, but the said company also draws benefits, so nobody loses in this deal.

The cases you present are more appropriate for individuals who like to contribute on their own free time to a project. I'm sure that there are such individuals, a lot of them actually, and they are right to stay away from corporate-owned GPL projects. But from the point of view of for-profit companies that contribute and use open-source projects, this is really a non-issue. And so, when talking specifically about JBoss, which is a J2EE app server in the end, I kind of doubt that your arguments apply.

Tim O'Brien
2006-04-12 11:58:34
re: Razvan, this isn't about a particular company's incentive or disincentive to transfer copyright, nor is it about a particular individual. I see little distinction between the company or the individual's interest. To me this is about the fact that if company A wishes to "give back" to the project, they must do so on the terms of corporation assigned this copyright. This creates a sort of artificial impediment for people not comfortable with devoting a great deal of time to a project that is essentially mediated by a single, closed corporate entity.

And, to say that "JBoss is just a J2EE app server" is to ignore the fact that JBoss is a really compelling constellation of interesting and valuable technologies - caching, an entire web sevices stack, EJB3, hibernate. The list goes on, and I use all of these projects, i'm just wary of customizing them.

Tom Elrod
2006-04-12 12:00:20
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Here is a counter one I think would be worth you reading -

Paul Browne
2006-04-13 02:51:41

I think it is good that JBoss sold for $300m (as money is always a good incentive for other people to try and copy Mark Fleury) but I doubt if we'll see another one on that scale. Why? A couple of reasons, and copyright / licences are only one of them.

1) For most major infastructure (e.g. app servers), there is an Apache product. I like JBoss as a product , but if was starting again I might use / contribute more to Geronimo. Why? Because Apache has a good track record in becoming the de-facto standard in a 'winner takes all' type of market.

2) When JBoss started , there was no widely used 'Open' Java app server. There are still niche gaps in the market, but none the size that JBoss filled.

3) Envy. I didn't contribute to JBoss code as an open contributor , but if I did , I would be annoyed (to put it mildly). Yes, I would have known (in my head) at the time that the company *could* be sold, but that doesn't stop the envy (in my heart)!

Overall , I'm positive about the 'Redhat buys JBoss' Experience. It's a concrete example of the sometimes (abstract) talk about licences and why they are important. No matter if you're positive or negative about the recent deal, JBoss (whatever the business model) has also delivered a very good product that has helped me (a lot) in my work with clients.


2006-04-13 09:27:10
Perhaps (l)gpl projects should organize as legal entities and distribute X shares per accepted commit in exchange for the assignment of the copyright. :dunno You'd have your incentive back (maybe).
Robert Loomans
2006-04-14 05:11:23
JD, of course Linus happy with the GPL, he's assigned the Copyright to the FSF - - Big difference here. Again, re-emphasizing this fact - my problem isn't with the GPL or LGPL per se, it is with the chilling effect that copyright assignment to a corporation creates.

On the contrary, Linus has not assigned copyright to the FSF. Read the comment at the top of the COPYING file.

It states that the GPL licence text is copyright by the FSF.

The code of the Linux kernel, however, remains under the copyright of the authors (ie, Linus, et al), it is available to others under the terms of the GPL licence.

I believe that software that is considered part of the GNU software suite (which the Linux kernel is not), are required to be legally assigned to the FSF. Similarly contributors of "legally significant" contributions are required to legally assign their code to the FSF. See

This legal assignment requires physical, signed paperwork. For details of the process, see and

It's impossible to accidentally or automatically relinquish your copyright if the contributions are legally significant.

Contributing code to the Linux kernel does not ever require any such paperwork.

2006-04-26 04:18:36
Sheesh, what a bunch of ignorant anti-GPL FUD!

The most obvious (and easily-rebutted) example is, of course, this: "Linus has assigned copyright to the FSF". Sheesh... The writer is apparently unable to read even just the first six lines of the very text he links to!

But the main idiocy he perpetrates is of course to blame the problem of contributors assigning their copyright to someone else (especially a for-profit corporation) with the GPL itself. The one quite simply has nothing to do with the other.

Frankly, O'Reilly should be ashamed of themselves. Are they *paying* this guy to spout such drivel? If so, that's a huge misinvestment -- he is *detracting* from their reputation, not adding to it.

Tim O'Brien
2006-04-26 20:56:44
re: CRConrad, don't even get me started with the copyright assignment of the Linux kernel. It is probably the single sloppiest copyright assignment in open source. Some sources explicitly list Copyright statements, but other do not. Take, for example, libfs.c - no copyright, but bio.c is copyright 2001 Jen Axboe. Some of the copyright statements reserve all rights, some of the copyright statements don't. Kernel copyright assignment is a mess, I wouldn't want to defend it. Could one effectively reconstruct copyright for every component of the kernel? Sure. Could they do a better job defining and assigning copyright? Yep. Would I be excited about jumping into a legal dispute about kernel copyright assignment? Not a chance.

Is that FUD? since when was it illegal to express uncertainty? :-) I'm confident that the Kernel is GPL. My uncertainty doesn't preclude me from *using* the Linux kernel, but, am I allowed to express some dismay with the licensing or the copyright?

Anyway, you miss the point entirely, the point here is that contributing to a project driven by a corporation, distributed under LGPL, and assigning your copyright to JBoss (which if you look at JBoss source is explicit) isn't my idea of open source. Other's disagree, that's fine. To say that I'm going to retain dual copyright for "significant" changes to particular files just further increases my disincentive to contribute to such projects - at the end of the day, Jboss will slap Copyright JBoss (and original contributors) on the file, end of conversation.

And, no this isn't anti-GPL FUD. This is opinion, I dislike the GPL and the LGPL, as a license it reads more like a manifesto than a legal document. And it's adherents tend to pile on anyone who dares challenge FSF doctrine.

2006-12-03 02:03:10
Tim O'Brien
2008-02-16 13:07:24
@Carlos, years later... I think history has proven that Mergere never really had more than 4 or 5 competent developers devotes to Maven.