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Case to test principles of 'free software' movement

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 2/27/2002

The ''free software'' movement that produced the popular Linux operating system was born in Greater Boston. And today, a federal judge in Boston will hear testimony in a case that could redefine one of the key principles of that movement.

The Swedish company MySQL AB produces database software under the terms of the General Public License, or GPL. Under this license, devised by the Boston-based Free Software Foundation, GPL software is available for use by any individual or business. The free software can even be included in commercial products. But any company that mixes its own software with GPL software must freely publish its own software as well.

MySQL claims that Bedford-based Progress Software Corp. is mingling some of its private, commercial software with MySQL's free software. MySQL says that this requires Progress to publish its code under the GPL. Failing that, MySQL, which offers a commercial version of its software, says that Progress should have to pay to use the code.

Progress says that its way of using the MySQL code does not violate the GPL.

''We have different interpretations of what GPL licensing requires,'' said Lorne Cooper, president of Progress subsidiary NuSphere Corp., which produces the disputed software. ''Basically they have a very broad interpretation.''

Cooper said MySQL is interpreting the license so broadly that any commercial software that comes into contact with free software must also become free. By that standard, a commercial e-mail program would violate the GPL if it downloaded mail from a GPL-compliant mail server. Cooper said that an earlier version of its software might have violated the license but that it has been modified to ensure compliance.

MySQL's chief executive Marten Mickos said this may be true, but it doesn't matter.

''The GPL states that once you violate it, that's it,'' Mickos said. ''You lose all your rights under the GPL.''

The two companies are embroiled in a contract dispute over a business alliance that turned sour last year. MySQL wants Progress to stop using the MySQL name in its marketing efforts; Progress says that it has every right to do so, based upon a contract that MySQL considers invalid.

Bradley Kuhn, vice president of the Free Software Foundation, said that this will be the first time a US court will rule on the validity of the GPL and the limits of its application.

The Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985 by Cambridge programmer Richard Stallman and others who believed that all computer software should be free. This doesn't mean that all software should be given away. Instead, the organization believes that the underlying ''source code'' that makes the software work should be made available to those who use it.

Most commercial software companies treat the source code as secret information, because it reveals exactly how their software works. Instead, companies usually release only the ''binaries,'' the code that actually runs on the machine. Binaries are almost impossible to analyze and modify; for that, users would need the source code.

The Free Software Foundation grew out of Project GNU, an effort launched in 1983 to create a free version of the Unix operating system. In the early 1990s, it joined forces with Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds. The result was the Linux operating system, now used by businesses and institutions worldwide.

Fearing that Progress Software is seeking to flout the GPL, the Free Software Foundation will be in court today in support of MySQL's position.

''We're in fact surprised, utterly surprised, that Progress thinks they can win this,'' Kuhn said.

But Lorne Cooper of Progress says his company staunchly supports the GPL. He said users of free software need a court ruling to define their legal rights and responsibilities.

''Especially our big customers,'' Cooper said. ''They'll benefit from some clarity here.''

Hiawatha Bray can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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