Articles / Bruce Perens on StarOffice

Bruce Perens on StarOffice

Bruce Perens reviews the recent change of hands of StarOffice to SUN, and how this will affect the licencing, the Linux community, and the general perceptions of users inside and outside of the Open Source community. Hit the details link for the full article.

Sun's StarOffice Release: Is It Really What You Think?

Bruce Perens bruce@perens.com

Recently Sun Microsystems released StarOffice for Linux, Windows, and other platforms, for download with no charge. They promised to release the StarOffice source code under the Sun Community Source License. This essay clears up some mis-reporting and discusses implications of the StarOffice release.

What's Happened So Far?

Sun has purchased Star Division, a company that produces an office suite for Linux/UNIX, Windows, and OS/2 platforms. StarOfficeoffers similar functionality to Microsoft Office, and is able to read and write the file formats of MS Office tools, including the most important ones: the word processor and spreadsheet. Although not 100% compatible, it does the job for the features you'd generally use. Potentially, it provides a means for non-Microsoft systems, including Linux, to move onto the desktop in Microsoft-centric offices. Sun has released binary versions of StarOffice with a conventional restrictive license for download, and promises to soon release the source code under the Sun Community Source License (the SCSL). That license claims some of the benefits of Open Source, but is quite far from compliance with the Open Source Definition. Some press and industry pundits were confused by this, and erroneously announced StarOffice as Open Source software. However, I have seen no evidence that Sun represented that StarOffice was Open Source. Indeed, Sun has published an article that touches upon some differences between Open Source and the SCSL. The most important differences between the SCSL and Open Source licenses are that it allows research and internal use only, not commercial distribution, and that it severely restricts the distribution of modifications.

What Does It Mean?

Of course, it's a broadside at Microsoft, the largest threat to Sun's future revenues. The free StarOffice release is an attempt to eat into the profits MS derives from its own Office product, and to break an effective monopoly that MS holds on business software. Sun has assisted Linux and other operating systems on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, because those systems cut into Microsoft's operating-systems revenue and intrude upon their monopoly in the systems software market. Unfortunately, my enemy's enemy relationships often break down after the war, as the relationship between the Soviet Union's and the U.S., essential for beating the Nazis, became acrimonious after World War II ended. Linux systems on cheap commodity PC hardware are already cutting into Sun's server sales, no doubt this causes them concern.

The StarOffice release is definitely good for Linux, but its non-Open-Source nature also raises some concern. Could Sun be building ammunition for its next war? StarOffice may also be an attempt to gain long-term control over the Linux desktop market. By releasing an almost-Open-Source office suite, Sun may be attempting to reduce the demand for an entirely-Open-Source office product. Many people who might otherwise be developers or users of a fully Open Source office suite could decide that StarOffice is "good enough", preventing the development of an Open-Source substitute. This might even siphon resources from other projects that are currently working on fully Open Source office software, such as the commercial ABIWord project. But unlike ABIWord, the SCSL's prohibition on commercial distribution would force Linux distributions to purchase a commercial license and pay royalties to include StarOffice on their CDs. StarOffice otherwise could be downloaded for free only from Sun (except for research use) and only for as long as Sun wishes to continue free downloads. The SCSL would even keep the software off of non-commercial Linux distributions like Debian, a non-profit organization that relies on low-cost third-party commercial distributors to move its software to the masses. However, it's possible that developers could be able to make use of the StarOffice specifications, which Sun promises to publish, to develop compatible, 100% Open Source products. Whether or not this is possible awaits knowledge of the technical details of those specifications (whether they document core functions and file formats or only that information necessary to build plug-ins) and their licensing.

Sun doesn't have the same reasons for restricting the license of StarOffice that it did for Java, which is also under the SCSL. It probably doesn't make a big difference whether or not someone makes and commercially distributes incompatible changes to StarOffice. In contrast, changes to Java by Microsoft jeopardized Sun's write-once, run anywhere strategy of Java as a universal cross-platform solution. Sun isn't going to make big royalties off of StarOffice while it's also giving it away for free from its own web site, so the restriction on commercial distribution makes little sense. Sun can show the Linux community which side it's on by modifying its license to be fully compliant with the Open Source Definition before it releases the StarOffice source code.

Sun promotes central control as one of the advantages of the Sun Community Source License. In their own words (in this article), Sun states the SCSL license guarantees structured innovation within a single responsible organization. That responsible organization is Sun, I guess, but of course the SCSL doesn't mandate a budgetary commitment. Contrast this to the development of Linux: no product has grown as quickly, by functionality, by the number of deployed systems, and in terms of the total amount of debugged code, as Linux. Yet, the license of Linux has no provision for central control and no central budget for development - development is on an as-needed, by whoever needs it basis. The lack of central control has also forced those who would lead the development of Linux, including Linus Torvalds himself, to constantly demonstrate their competence as software designers. It is only this demonstrated competence that causes the Linux community to follow any leader. This is insurance against incompetence and mediocrity in programmers, and against false marketing that would set the wrong goals for software development. It's one of the main reasons for the very high code-quality of Linux and its rapidly expanding coverage of the problem space. Another reason Sun gives for the SCSL is there is clear control over compatibility. However, compatibility can be controlled effectively in fully Open Source software through the use of certification programs and trademarks, without simultaneously impeding innovation.

Perhaps this is the most important reason Sun gives for its use of the SCSL: it is clear who owns what. In this case, it's not just software - it might become ownership of a market. In contrast, Open Source software deliberately establishes a sort of community ownership of software, even though copyright owners all retain the ownership of the code they've placed under a common license. This community ownership guarantees a fair quid-pro-quo for all developers, because the Open Source licenses give every developer a specific set of rights that they have found to be fair compensation for their contributions of software. The encouragement that this has given developers resulted in the success of Linux. One of the important guaranteed rights is the right to commercially distribute the software, without any need to execute a separate commercial license.

Most critics of Open Source raise the issue of commercial distribution, as Sun does so with its own discussion of the SCSL, stating that payment for commercial distribution is only fair. In contrast, I've written a few parts of the Red Hat Linux distribution and I don't insist on a royalty for them. People sometimes ask me: aren't you bothered by the fact that Red Hat sells your code, and doesn't give you any money back for it? I'm not bothered at all, because Red Hat can only make what it should for getting that software into the customer's hands and supporting that customer. If I don't like what Red Hat is charging, I can sell the same software for less, and take away some of Red Hat's business. In fact, I have the right to sell just about everything in Red Hat's Linux distribution. Thus, I can circumvent Red Hat and its pricing. This possibility of circumvention is important to the quid-pro-quo - Red Hat can't establish a monopoly on my Open Source code. The SCSL doesn't provide this same monopoly insurance. It sets Sun up in the monopoly seat, creating a possible problem for the future, but it does not guarantee Sun a revenue for the software as long as they are also allowing people to dowload it for free. Thus, it's not a fair return we're really talking about here - it's control.

So, in conclusion, I think that the StarOffice release is a good thing for Linux, but not yet a good thing for Open Source. Sun could make it a lot better, and they have little incentive not to do so. I hope I've given you something to think about, and I hope I've corrected some of the mis-reporting and that the press will be a bit more careful next time. And finally, I'd like to send out this message: Com'on Sun, make it compliant with the Open Source Definition.

- Bruce Perens

Appendix A: Sun's Binary Code License Agreement for StarOffice

I copied the following license from a dialogue box presented when downloading StarOffice, because I couldn't find a plain URL to link it into this article. You can find read the original by pressing the download button at http://www.sun.com/products/staroffice/get.html . I presume it's copyrighted by Sun Microsystems. It is included here only in order to elucidate my comments on the license.
               Sun Microsystems, Inc.

Binary Code License Agreement

READ THE TERMS OF THIS AGREEMENT AND ANY PROVIDED
SUPPLEMENTAL LICENSE TERMS (COLLECTIVELY "AGREEMENT")
CAREFULLY BEFORE OPENING THE SOFTWARE MEDIA PACKAGE.  BY
OPENING THE SOFTWARE MEDIA PACKAGE, YOU AGREE TO THE TERMS
OF THIS AGREEMENT.  IF YOU ARE ACCESSING THE SOFTWARE
ELECTRONICALLY INDICATE YOUR ACCEPTANCE OF THESE TERMS BY
SELECTING THE "ACCEPT" BUTTON AT THE END OF THIS AGREEMENT.
IF YOU DO NOT AGREE TO ALL OF THESE TERMS, PROMPTLY RETURN
THE UNUSED SOFTWARE TO YOUR PLACE OF PURCHASE FOR A REFUND
OR, IF THE SOFTWARE IS ACCESSED ELECTRONICALLY, SELECT THE
"CANCEL" BUTTON AT THE END OF THIS AGREEMENT.

1.  License to Use.  Sun grants to you a non-exclusive and
non-transferable license for the internal use only of the
accompanying software and documentation and any error
corrections provided by Sun (collectively "Software").  You
have no right to distribute the Software.

2.  Restrictions.  Software is confidential and copyrighted.
Title to Software and all associated intellectual property
rights is retained by Sun and/or its licensors.  You may
make copies of Software only for your internal use provided
that you reproduce all notices in and on Software, including
this Agreement.  Unless enforcement is prohibited by
applicable law, you may not modify, decompile, disassemble,
or otherwise reverse engineer Software.  You acknowledge
that the Software is not designed or intended for use in
on-line control of aircraft, air traffic, aircraft
navigation or aircraft communications; or in the design,
construction, operation or maintenance of any nuclear
facility.  Sun disclaims any express or implied warranty of
fitness for such uses.  No right, title or interest in or to
any trademark, service mark, logo, or trade name of Sun or
its licensors is granted under this Agreement.

3.  Limited Warranty.  Sun warrants to you that for a period
of ninety (90) days from the date of purchase, as evidenced
by a copy of the receipt, the media on which Software is
furnished (if any) will be free of defects in materials and
workmanship under normal use.  Except for the foregoing,
Software is provided "AS IS".  Your exclusive remedy and
Sun's entire liability under this limited warranty will be
at Sun's option to replace the Software media or refund the
fee paid for the Software.

4.  Disclaimer of Warranty.  UNLESS SPECIFIED IN THIS
AGREEMENT, ALL EXPRESS OR IMPLIED CONDITIONS,
REPRESENTATIONS AND WARRANTIES, INCLUDING ANY IMPLIED
WARRANTY OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR
PURPOSE, OR NON-INFRINGEMENT, ARE DISCLAIMED, EXCEPT TO THE
EXTENT THAT THESE DISCLAIMERS ARE HELD TO BE LEGALLY
INVALID.

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BY APPLICABLE LAW, IN NO EVENT WILL SUN OR ITS LICENSORS BE
LIABLE FOR ANY LOST REVENUE, PROFIT OR DATA, OR FOR SPECIAL,
INDIRECT, CONSEQUENTIAL, INCIDENTAL OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES,
HOWEVER CAUSED AND REGARDLESS OF THE THEORY OF LIABILITY,
ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE USE OF OR INABILITY TO USE
SOFTWARE, EVEN IF SUN HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF
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8.  U.S.  Government Restricted Rights.  If this Software
is
being acquired by or on behalf of the U.S.  Government or by
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with 48 C.F.R.  227.7201 through 227.7202-4 (for Department
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For inquiries please contact:  Sun Microsystems, Inc., 901
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Recent comments

16 Dec 1999 10:33 Avatar sjaveed

Semi-open-source > closed-source
All I have to say in this regard is that even though Sun has made available the source code for StarOffice under its own terms and conditions (internal use, no distributions etc), these are certainly better than the terms offered by Stardivision prior to this. Those terms were, for those who've forgotten, closed-source binary-only distribution. I think KOffice and other such open-source suites being coded by the Linux community can use some help from the semi-open-source of StarOffice. Think of this as a little cheat sheet which can be used to determine how to work around a particular problem or how to implement a particular feature or just to see how others solved a similar problem. The next logical step for Sun is to make StarOffice completely open source, but until that time, I'm happy with this development.

08 Sep 1999 10:47 Avatar jeffjennings

Re: StarOffice Registration
The serial key is gone.

08 Sep 1999 09:31 Avatar sergiomasc

StarOffice not Open Source - So what?
I was pleased to hear that Sun Microsystems is now providing a product (StarOffice) that meets the needs of many non-commercial Linux user for free.

If the Linux / Open Source zealots keep demanding that commercial software be made open source "or they will re-write it themselves as an open source product", then they are endangering the possibility that other commercial software will be ported to (or specifically written for) Linux. The vast majority of Linux users will never want to hack word processor and spread sheet source code.

I would imagine that Sun, by placing redistribution restrictions on StarOffice, is preparing to produce a Sun specific distribution of Linux. Is this so wrong? Everyone else seems to be jumping on the Linux distribution bandwagon and in many cases with far fewer contributions to Linux.

If you want Linux to succeed against a commercial OS you should be encouraging software authors to port their products from the commercial OS to Linux not hunting them down with elephant guns because they have the audacity to withhold their (valuable) source code.

08 Sep 1999 03:03 Avatar grtodd

KOffice is free
... and making good progress.

Well - one can quibble about the Qt toolkit license but KOffice source is open. As it moves into beta and then on to version 1.0 KOffice will add further value to the Linux platform. And because it's open source it may develop more quickly than StarOffice. KOffice needs coders though - it might not be a sexy project but it's one that will make a difference: C++ and Qt/KDE gurus should be flocking on board!

08 Sep 1999 02:40 Avatar lukshuntim

Star Office license
Can Sun be persuaded to turn it Open Source?

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