Sun, Oracle, Android, Google and JDK Copyleft FUD

Tuesday 5 January 2016 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I have probably spent more time dealing with the implications and real-world scenarios of copyleft in the embedded device space than anyone. I'm one of a very few people charged with the task of enforcing the GPL for Linux, and it's been well-known for a decade that GPL violations on Linux occur most often in embedded devices such as mobile hand-held computers (aka “phones”) and other such devices.

This experience has left me wondering if I should laugh or cry at the news coverage and pundit FUD that has quickly come forth from Google's decision to move from the Apache-licensed Java implementation to the JDK available from Oracle.

As some smart commenters like Bob Lee have said, there is already at least one essential part of Android, namely Linux itself, licensed as pure GPL. I find it both amusing and maddening that respondents use widespread GPL violation by chip manufacturers as some sort of justification for why Linux is acceptable, but Oracle's JDK is not. Eventually, (slowly but surely) GPL enforcement will adjudicate the widespread problem of poor Linux license compliance — one way or the other. But, that issue is beside the point when we talk of the licenses of code running in userspace. The real issue with that is two-fold.

First, If you think the ecosystem shall collapse because “pure GPL has moved up the Android stack”, and “it will soon virally infect everyone” with copyleft (as you anti-copyleft folks love to say) your fears are just unfounded. Those of us who worked in the early days of reimplementing Java in copyleft communities thought carefully about just this situation. At the time, remember, Sun's Java was completely proprietary, and our goal was to wean developers off Sun's implementation to use a Free Software one. We knew, just as the early GNU developers knew with libc, that a fully copylefted implementation would gain few adopters. So, the earliest copyleft versions of Java were under an extremely weak copyleft called the “GPL plus the Classpath exception”. Personally, I was involved as a volunteer in the early days of the Classpath community; I helped name the project and design the Classpath exception. (At the time, I proposed we call it the “Least GPL” since the Classpath exception carves so many holes in strong copyleft that it's less of a copyleft than even the Lesser GPL and probably the Mozilla Public License, too!)

But, what does the Classpath exception from GNU's implementation have to with Oracle's JDK? Well, Sun, before Oracle's acquisition, sought to collaborate with the Classpath community. Those of us who helped start Classpath were excited to see the original proprietary vendor seek to release their own formerly proprietary code and want to merge some of it with the community that had originally formed to replace their code with a liberated alternative.

Sun thus released much of the JDK under “GPL with Classpath exception”. The reasons were clearly explained (URL linked is an archived version of what once appeared on Sun's website) on their collaboration website for all to see. You see the outcome of that in many files in the now-infamous commit from last week. I strongly suspect Google's lawyers vetted what was merged to made sure that the Android Java SDK fully gets the appropriate advantages of the Classpath exception.

So, how is incorporating Oracle's GPL-plus-Classpath-exception'd JDK different from having an Apache-licensed Java userspace? It's not that much different! Android redistributors already have strong copyleft obligations in kernel space, and, remember that Webkit is LGPL'd; there's also already weak copyleft compliance obligations floating around Android, too. So, if a redistributor is already meeting those, it's not much more work to meet the even weaker requirements now added to the incorporated JDK code. I urge you to ask anyone who says that this change will have any serious impact on licensing obligations and analysis for Android redistributors to please prove their claim with an actual example of a piece of code added in that commit under pure GPL that will combine in some way with Android userspace applications. I admit I haven't dug through the commit to prove the negative, but I'd be surprised if some Google engineers didn't do that work before the commit happened.

You may now ask yourself if there is anything of note here at all. There's certainly less here than most are saying about it. In fact, a Java industry analyst (with more than a decade of experience in the area) told me that he believed the decision was primarily technical. Authors of userspace applications on Android (apparently) seek a newer Java language implementation and given that there was a reasonably licensed Free Software one available, Google made a technical switch to the superior codebase, as it gives API users technically what they want while also reducing maintenance burden. This seems very reasonable. While it's less shocking than what the pundits say, technical reasons probably were the primary impetus.

So, for Android redistributors, are there any actual licensing risks to this change? The answer there is undoubtedly yes, but the situation is quite nuanced, and again, the problem is not as bad as the anti-copyleft crowd says. The Classpath exception grants very wide permissions. Nevertheless, some basic copyleft obligations can remain, albeit in a very weak-copyleft manner. It is possible to violate that weak copyleft, particularly if you don't understand the licensing of all third-party materials combined with the JDK. Still, since you must comply with Linux's license to redistribute Android, complying with the Classpath exception'd stuff will require only a simple afterthought.

Meanwhile, Sun's (now Oracle's) JDK, is likely nearly 100% copyright-held by Oracle. I've written before about the dangers of the consolidation of a copylefted codebase with a single for-profit, commercial entity. I've even pointed out that Oracle specifically is very dangerous in its methods of using copyleft as an aggression.

Copyleft is a tool, not a moral principle. Tools can be used incorrectly with deleterious effect. As an analogy, I'm constantly bending paper clips to press those little buttons on electronic devices, and afterwards, the tool doesn't do what it's intended for (hold papers together); it's bent out of shape and only good for the new, dubious purpose, better served by a different tool. (But, the paper clip was already right there on my desk, you see…)

Similarly, while organizations like Conservancy use copyleft in a principled way to fight for software freedom, others use it in a manipulative, drafter-unintended, way to extract revenue with no intention standing up for users' rights. We already know Oracle likes to use GPL this way, and I really doubt that Oracle will sign a pledge to follow Conservancy's and FSF's principles of GPL enforcement. Thus, we should expect Oracle to aggressively enforce against downstream Android manufacturers who fail to comply with “GPL plus Classpath exception”. Of course, Conservancy's GPL Compliance Project for Linux developers may also enforce, if the violation extends to Linux as well. But, Conservancy will follow those principles and prioritize compliance and community goodwill. Oracle won't. But, saying that means that Oracle has “its hooks” in Android makes no sense. They have as many hooks as any of the other thousands of copyright holders of copylefted material in Android. If anything, this is just another indication that we need more of those copyright holders to agree with the principles, and we should shun codebases where only one for-profit company holds copyright.

Thus, my conclusion about this situation is quite different than the pundits and link-bait news articles. I speculate that Google weighed a technical decision against its own copyleft compliance processes, and determined that Google would succeed in its compliance efforts on Android, and thus won't face compliance problems, and can therefore easily benefit technically from the better code. However, for those many downstream redistributors of Android who fail at license compliance already, the ironic outcome is that you may finally find out how friendly and reasonable Conservancy's Linux GPL enforcement truly is, once you compare it with GPL enforcement from a company like Oracle, who holds avarice, not software freedom, as its primary moral principle.

Finally, the bigger problem in Android with respect to software freedom is that the GPL is widely violated on Linux in Android devices. If this change causes Android redistributors to reevalute their willful ignorance of GPL's requirements, then some good may come of it all, despite Oracle's expected nastiness.

Update on 2016-01-06: I specifically didn't mention the lawsuit above because I don't actually think this whole situation has much to do with the lawsuit, but if folks do want to read my analysis of the Oracle v. Google lawsuit, these are my posts on it in reverse chronological order: [0], [1], [2], [3]. I figured I should add these links given that all the discussion on at least one forum discussing this blog post is about the lawsuit.

Posted on Tuesday 5 January 2016 at 20:00 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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