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StarOffice chief: why Sun community source beats GPL

Marco Boerries runs the highest profile Sun community source operation - by choice, he says

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Sun's Community Source Licence (SCSL) model has come under fire from the open source community as an unsatisfactory halfway house, and quite possibly a trap at that. At Sun, StarOffice founder Marco Boerries is the one who's most obviously in the firing line in this area, and speaking in London yesterday he took it on the chin, and explained why he thought that the Sun approach beats GPL in the long term. Boerries' company was bought by Sun earlier this year, and the way he tells it he was given virtually total flexibility in terms of the business and licensing models he'd apply with the division that formed from it. Sun has a number of SCSL (pronounced Scuzzle, apparently) initiatives on the go, but the StarOffice/StarPortal operation Boerries runs is the most fully-formed, and highest profile -- so he's in pole position. Prior to the Sun takeover Star had been giving StarOffice away for personal use, but still charging for business. Post takeover it became free, under the SCSL model, but that needn't automatically have been the case; Boerries says he could have taken it fully open source if he'd wanted to. "I was asked if it was OK [to go SCSL]," he says, and "I believe it protects our customers better than GPL." He's willing to take the question head-on: "The argument is that [with SCSL] the [open source] community makes Sun rich. Well, the community makes Red Hat rich -- no community member has really joined in that." (The Red Hat IPO, that is) Sun clearly won't get anything like the same level of developer support by pursuing SCSL as it would by going GPL, but Boerries points out that in some areas GPL can be inherently more of a problem than SCSL. Sun, as a commercial company whose products include intellectual property licensed from multiple sources, needs that control, because it's completely impossible to give away the whole lot without the agreement of everybody who actually owns it. But GPL can fall down for similar reasons, in Boerries' view. "One big problem with GPL is that it's hard to give the customer indemnification and product warranties." So long as open source software really is open source then this oughtn't to be much of a problem, but where are the guarantees that it is? "You can submit source that's been stolen," he says. Indeed you can, and even if it's not stolen it's by no means absolutely the case that the code that goes into the open source pot has no IP ownership attached to it in some shape or form. Which takes Boerries on to the next leg of his argument. So long as it isn't possible to sure about all of the ownership of the code, it's foolhardy for suppliers to give customers guarantees and indemnities about it. In the diffuse open source world as it currently stands, that's maybe not too much of a problem. But as installations get larger and customers more conventional/big business, maybe Boerries has a point. "If you want to sell to government and large enterprises, you have to be wary about that." ®

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