Emacsen's Blog

Why is SFLC siding with Oracle over Linux developers?

I don't write about politics much on this blog (in fact I haven't written anything in quite a while), but Free Software is something I care a great deal about, and so when I see something fishy and scandalous, I take interest, and that's exactly what's going on with the Software Freedom Law Center's position on ZFS's license compatibility with Linux.

If you haven't heard, the Software Freedom Conservancy made a public statement about ZFS. The facts can get a little complicated but in a nutshell, Cannonical, the company that makes Ubuntu, is going to distribute ZFS with the next release of their operating system (16.04). Unfortunately, ZFS (which is owned by Oracle) is distributed as a separate module under a licensed called the CDDL, which is non-GPL compatible. You can read Conservancy's post here: https://sfconservancy.org/blog/2016/feb/25/zfs-and-linux/

There's a simple solution to this problem. Since Cannonical can't ship this code legally without infringing on the Linux (and possibly ZFS) license, Oracle should simply change the licensing of ZFS from CDDL to another, GPL-compatible license, either the GPL2 or a permissive license such as the MIT license. It would be a relatively correction for Oracle to make and it would allow the distribution of ZFS.

What's more interesting than this conflict is the response that the Software Freedom Law Center posted an article on thier website about the case: https://softwarefreedom.org/resources/2016/linux-kernel-cddl.html

I imagine that if you've read it, you're probably thinking that's it's incredibly well written, but you may feel vaguely dizzy. I understand; I feel that way too when I read Eben Mogen's writing. His approach to language can be incredibly inspiring, but at the same time by using so many words, he creates a cloud of obfuscation of the facts. Usually I'd say that I'm glad he's on our side, but this post of his is decidedly not on our side.

For all its length, the article has two main points. Firstly, it says that the CDDL (the licensed used by Oracle) is not compatible with the GPL in fact, but it is so "in spirit". Secondly, it says that the kernel developers are the problem, not Oracle.

To the first point, that the CDDL is close in spirit but not in fact is an odd one for a lawyer to make. As former councel for the FSF, Moglen has an understanding of the terms of the license that most people don't have, and he knows very well that once the license is committed to writing, we use what's written to decide whether or not something is allowed under the license, rather than the ambigious idea of "the spirit of the license", which he refers to in his post.

Which gets to Eben's second point, which is to shift the blame of the problem onto the kernel developers, rather than onto Oracle. What he's saying, in essence, is that he would like the GPL to be different than it is. This reminds me of those people who argue that the GPL is a de-facto public domain license, due to its spirit. It's not. The GPL spells out its terms very clearly, and Oracle certainly has lawyers that understand the GPL.

Which leads me to my third and final point. Eben Moglen is a genuis. He's someone that I admire immensely and have at time been inspired by and aspired to his skills as both a thinker and an orator. Knowing his history and feeling as I do about him, this post seems entirely out of character. So then if it's out of character, why would he do it? Why would he side with a large, powerful corporation over GPL-using kernel developers? The only conclusion that I can come to is that he must be recieving money from Oracle. I'd love to be able to either support or negate this but the Software Freedom Law Center does not publish the names of the companies that donate to it. In other words, we can't know what corporate interests have donated to SFLC because SFLC had decided to not disclose its corporate donors.