We have unfinished business, I and he

Apache redraws battle lines against Oracle licensing

The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) reopened old wounds with a statement this week, seemingly out of the blue, which reiterated its opposition to Oracle’s open source policies.

Specifically, the ASF objects to the fact that test suites ensuring adherence to Java’s spec, known as Technology Compatibility Kits or TCKs, are essentially closed-source. Any code licensed with Oracle’s TCKs therefore becomes incompatible with the open Apache License.

This is far from new. Despite being home to many important Java projects – including Hadoop, Ant and Maven – the ASF has a long history of objecting to the practices of Java’s stalwarts, both Oracle and Sun Microsystems before it.

In the early 2000s, lengthy negotiations eventually resulted in a change to TCK licenses – even if Sun itself did not stick to it. Oracle, too, has continued to license their TCKs in a way that the ASF says it finds unacceptable.

The debate escalated in 2009 and 2010, with several months of public arguments over Apache Harmony, an open source implementation of Java. Despite being a member of the JCP (Java Community Process, the governance body behind Java), the ASF was denied open access to the relevant TCKs.

The foundation then somewhat churlishly encouraged fellow JCP members to vote down Java 7 in protest – but when that failed, it retired from the board altogether. Apache Harmony was finally abandoned in 2011, despite being 95% complete.

The mexican standoff between Oracle and the ASF has continued to bubble under the surface ever since. Earlier this year, VMware's Oliver Gierke briefly reignited the debate when he joined the JPA 2.1 Expert Group – and found, to his surprise, that the TCKs were almost entirely controlled by Oracle.

What prompted the ASF to release a new (but fundamentally unchanged) statement on the situation this week is unclear. However, if its authors’ aim was to bring the subject to light once more, they at least succeeded in capturing the attention of Twitter for a few minutes. Even Oracle evangelist Bruno Borges agreed:

Photo by 4652 Paces.

Elliot Bentley

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