Unfortunately, GPL is NOT Dead

There are times to love Google and there are times to hate Google. At the moment, I’m in the latter phase, though it may not be for the reason you’re thinking based on the subject of this post and Annette Hurst’s article, “The Death of ‘Free’ Software or How Google killed GPL.” I’ll be clear, the reason I hate Google at the moment is because that headline popped up on my phone in Google Now, not because someone thinks that the GPL has been undermined and destroyed. Larry Ellison seems to have had a longstanding grudge against Google and Android and has been hell bent on destroying the latter, which is the underlying reason this legal warfare began. As annoying as these lawsuits have been, they’re not over yet and the GPL and open source sure as hell aren’t over just because Google won this particular case for the moment. Let me explain a few things, including why Ms. Hurst’s article is wrong before it spreads virally across the internet. She may be a lawyer, but oddly, she has a relatively weak grasp of what issues the case was about. I’m going to try to explain it, why she was wrong, and why I wish GPL was indeed dead.

Lets start with what the case is fundamentally about rather than focus on why it came about.

Oracle is suing Google over their use of the Java API, which was developed by Sun Microsystems back in the 90s. The goal of Java was to allow developers to write software once and run it anywhere. This was made possible by compiling the written code into bytecode which could then be interpreted by the runtime system installed on the local computer to execute as intended. The runtime system is written for the local computer’s operating system so that the Java application or applet can run at near native speed. Ideally at any rate. (A later adaptation called a Just In Time compiler, or JIT, came about to transcode the bytecode into the operating system’s native code so that it is indeed competitive with applications written in other compiled languages.) There are two executable “targets” for Java depending on the developer’s intended method of execution: applet and application. A Java applet is run from within a web browser, and is probably the most common way to encounter and use Java. Well, before Android came along, but that’s technically a different story that I’ll get to later. A Java application, as I implied earlier in this paragraph, is executed directly on the user’s computer via the runtime system. Fundamentally, Java is Java, regardless of whether it’s in an applet or application, though applets are generally speaking more restricted than applications for security reasons. (There are ways to circumvent many of those restrictions, but there’s no need to get into that.)

The problem with Java in general, which ultimately lead to the sale of Sun Microsystems, was that they were pretty much giving it away for free. Sun was a great friend to open source developers and operating system developers, allowing anyone to use Java to develop applets and applications as they pleased, and even develop alternative versions of the runtime system provided that the bytecode generated by their compilers were compatible with Sun’s runtime and their runtimes were compatible with the bytecode generated by Sun’s compilers. This interoperability mandate was important because Sun couldn’t be expected to develop an official Java runtime for every operating system that was out on the market from both big developers like Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and Red Hat and small ones, such as Be, OpenBSD, and all the independent, small timers. Not to mention, Sun had their own operating system, Solaris. In order for Java to truly run everywhere, Sun needed developers on other operating systems to develop their own runtime system and compiler, and made reference implementations available through the magic of open source. The lawsuits have declared that these reference implementations were under a dual license, the GNU Public License (GPL) and a commercial license. I’ll explain GPL later, and why I hate it, but suffice it to say it’s an open source license that has certain rules that need to be followed, but essentially allows anyone to use it for free. Commercial licenses, of course, are intended for commercial use, are usually sold by the license holder, and usually have additional benefits all around. Again, I’ll come back to these licenses later.

Another problem with Java was that it was plagued with security issues over the years, and it ran up against Macromedia’s Flash (Macromedia was later purchased by software powerhouse Adobe) which handled animation  and media better natively than Java did at the time. As security issues appeared and Flash grew in popularity, Java’s use declined. In fact, by 2012, Firefox began disabling Java support by default, forcing users to enable it either temporarily or permanently by a conscious choice. Firefox was joined by Chrome and other browsers afterwards. While Flash had and has its own security issues, it was and still is wildly popular.

When Google bought Android and began preparing it for use in smartphones years before Oracle bought Sun Microsystems. At some point, the Android team decided to use the Java API as the basis for developing applications for their new operating system. Although Android would be compiling code Java source code to a bytecode, it would be doing so to Dalvik bytecode rather than Java’s. The goal of using the Java API  in Android, was to provide a means to develop for Android with a well known, flexible and relatively simple to use language. They could easily have chosen C or any of its more direct relatives like Objective C or C++, assembly/assembler, or even invented an entirely new language. Given that Java was well established and Sun was losing money rapidly, Sun was more than happy to allow Google to use the Java API as the basis for developing apps on their new mobile operating system. Why? Because anyone that wanted to develop an Android app needed to learn Java if they didn’t already know it, and that would boost the use and spread of Java, which could potentially bring in indirect revenue to Sun.

You may be wondering exactly how that would be accomplished given that Java was free. (“Free as in beer” in this case.) Like Google, Sun made money on advertising deals, in this case in the installer of their official runtime, SDK, and JDK they offered to install third party toolbars and other applications alongside their  own software. The more developers installing the Sun runtime and JDK, as was necessary to develop for Android, the more opportunities Sun had to make money.

Then, suddenly, Oracle bought Sun, and started an aggressive campaign to bring down Google and Android through whatever means necessary. The cases went back and forth, but ultimately led us to this ruling this week. Oracle, through Ms. Hurst’s company, was claiming that Google had to use the commercial license for the Java API, not the GPL version, so they were in violation of the license and the law. The problem is, that any individual or corporation can use GPL licensed code freely, and here’s the kicker, provided that they make any changes they implement freely available on demand. So, if Oracle/Sun had created a wooden cube, and Google used the cube under GPL to create a white cube with wiggly lines, Google would have to share with the world how they created the white cube with wiggly lines. This is the — and this is key — viral nature of GPL. In principle and practice, anything that is based on GPL code is automatically GPL itself, and only the true owners/origin of the code has the right to issue the original code under a different license. Since the API was open source, GPL’ed as Oracle claims, the Android API had to be open source, and in particular GPL’ed as well.

And here’s where things get tricky. While I can’t say for sure that the Android API is indeed under the GPL license — a quick look at a source file shows the Apache 2.0 license in a file in the SDK —the Android API is indeed open source and more importantly, that doesn’t really matter. The API is being used as a means to create bytecode that is separate and different from the Java bytecode, despite the fact that the language being used is close to if not completely identical. Android has been open source since before the first SDK became available in 2008, and the code it produces is only intended to be operable within Android devices via the Dalvik bytecode and runtime. Google has added a fair amount of code directly within the Android API, but anything that is critical to Google specific business is downloadable separately from the Android API. So, in the bottom line, Google is using Java’s organization of classes, functions, and interfaces and description of such things in a purely textual sense to describe how things get compiled into their bytecode and used as apps on Android. That doesn’t violate the GPL, and the commercial license that Sun says Google had to use is irrelevant because the GPL itself indicates that it’s not necessary.

More pointedly to Ms. Hurst’s outrageous claim that this Google victory destroys the GPL, that is a flat out falsehood. Open source is not going to die as a result of this case. GPL is indeed legally stable, though it permitted Oracle to lose this case because their lawyers don’t seem to have a good grasp of the implications and use of open source licenses. And GPL software will continue to be developed; after all, many people use one of the biggest pieces of GPL software directly or indirectly at some point everyday: the Linux operating system which is at the heart of a great number of servers on the internet, providing web content, e-mail, sound and video, and even just plain text. If you’re an Android user, you use Linux everyday because Android was built on top of Linux. So in yet another way, Google is in compliance with the GPL. So what is Oracle complaining about? Simple, they’ve run out of ways to stab at Google in their efforts to bring down this giant.

Now, why do I hate GPL? It’s that viral nature. As a programmer, I have a very real grip on how much effort goes into doing even small tasks within computers, and I have a huge appreciation for being able to build on the work of others. In many cases, there’s no need to worry about the shoulders on which I’m standing to accomplish my goals. Many of the C/C++ libraries and SDKs are either considered standards, meaning they’re present in just about every compiler and/or SDK, at no charge, or their one of the even more lenient open source licenses such as the MIT or BSD license. Hell, some things are just plain public domain, meaning there’s no license at all and anyone is free to do anything they want with the code. But so often, a very useful or critical library you need is GPL. That isn’t so bad if what you’re doing is also going to be licensed under the GPL, but if you want to sell your product and not share your secrets, you have to back off of that GPL and find another library, if there is one, that will suit your needs. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a commercial license for the same library and can afford it. Maybe another implementation is LGPL (Lesser GNU Public License) which allows you to link to the library without automatically making your code GPL. Whatever the case may be, that GPL can haunt you. God forbid that you use GPL code or library in your work unwittingly; anyone that makes the discovery can immediately demand that you reveal all of your hard work even if the one bit of GPL code is something completely innocuous and arbitrary. That hardly seems fair to me, and it’s the bane of the small, independent developer that can’t afford to buy a commercial license for every library they need to use.

So yes, I want GPL to die in a fire, but I at least have a reason for it to do so. Google didn’t break GPL, despite what Oracle claims, and clearly Oracle’s lawyers need to come to a better understanding of open source licenses before they appeal this case.

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