MySQL docs freedom

As you may or may not know, long long ago (in this universe) I used to be the MySQL documentation team ;-)  Yes, a team of one. This was 2001. It was a great and interesting time. The current much extended team is doing a great job with the now much bigger set of docs!

Today, I find myself disagreeing with my former colleagues on one particular aspect, namely its licensing. You see, the documentation has never been released under an open license, it used to be plainly copyright all rights reserved, and later some rights were granted to distribute the docs together with the server.

Statements made earlier by Karen Padir regarding possible opening up of the docs license filled us with hope. Then, Stefan Hinz (the current docs team lead) wrote a blog entry MySQL documentation: no license change. Some of the arguments there we can just plainly disagree on, but fundamentally Sun wants to discourage forks and basically says that if you want to fork the code, you have to write your own docs. Of course they’re entitled to that position, it’s theirs to make. So what’s my problem with this? Of course I’m going to tell, that’s why I started this post.

While the MySQL codebase is GPL and cannot be “taken back” and closed regardless of who owns it. However, the documentation is not protected in this way to guarantee its continued availability to the community.

People have no implicit trust towards big companies (or even smaller corporations), whether it’s the old MySQL AB, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, or another organisation. Their track record is such that at any point strategic decisions can be made that go against everything they were professing the previous week. Which, by the way, I completely appreciate from a business perspective – whether I fundamentally like it or not.

But if you have a business partner, someone you trust, you don’t just shake hands on a critical arrangement, you establish a binding contract so that the terms are laid out clearly, can’t be reinterpreted later, and can’t just be revoked except within the prescribed terms. Still there’s plenty of litigation about contracts, but that’s a whole other matter. Situations change, people responsible change to different people, and companies change owners.

So, the only thing that makes people trust such organisations is a guarantee that has been externalised and thus can’t be revoked unilaterally. The GPL license satisfies that very well for code. Regardless of who owns the code, the fact that it’s GPL means that it can’t be closed up again retrospectively – at least the codebase up to the point where the license changes (if the company owns all the copyright to the code) will always be free.

With the documentation, it’s copyright Sun/MySQL all rights reserved and while certain grants have been made, those restricted liberties are not implicitly irrevocable, i.e. they have not been granted in perpetuity. As it stands now, the current or future owner of that IP could change the license, and hunt down any outstanding copy to enforce the new arrangement. I’m not suggesting they will change anything, but there is no externalised guarantee they won’t.

I believe this is a serious concern for the product as a whole, and hope this concern will be addressed by Sun Microsystems very soon – with action.

5 thoughts on “MySQL docs freedom”

  1. And then you have an even more insidious problem: anyone who wants to write a GPL’d set of docs for MySQl will most likely have read the MySQL docs at one point, so any attempt to do so could result in the parent company screaming “Contamination.” Similar arguments apply if one attempts to write docs for a fork of MySQL, say, Drizzle.

    Fun times.

  2. FYI, something I thought about — there’s lots of documentation embedded in the server code.

    Seriously — the mysql.help_topic table is full of manual excerpts, and falls under GPLv2.

    1. @sheeri Yep, it’s there, but why does it fall under GPLv2? Is that explicitly stated somewhere? As far as I know, it simply used under the basic MySQL docu license that allows distribution of (parts of) the docu as long as it’s together with the server. Does Debian include the help tables? That might be an indication of the status, since the MySQL docu license is not a free license as described in the Debian guidelines.

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