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We're not going to sue you

Posted by driscoll on July 20, 2005 at 8:41 AM PDT

In my last blog's comments, Chris Mahan posited that Sun would send lawyers after a hapless coder, nashing their tiny little sharp teeth. Since this isn't generally how things work - I thought I'd blog a bit on this here:

How many times have you seen a discussion on mailling lists, forums or blogs which says "If I do that with my source code, company X is going to sue me". Well, relax. The odds of you being successfully sued as an individual for something you do in code is probably below the odds of death by beesting.
Let me explain:

I've been at Sun for 9 years now, and working in the Java Software group (by whatever name it's called) for that entire time. During that time, we've tried to keep compatibility going through a variety of legal means, including use licenses and contracts. You might think that this means that we've been engaged in alot of lawsuits. With one major exception, we haven't. Now: why is this?

  • Lawsuits are expensive, and usually not profitable
  • Lawsuits are a distraction from your real business, which in our case is building computer solutions for customers
  • Lawsuits usually generate megatons of negative PR for the company bringing them, especially when they're asymetrical (i.e., directed at the little guy)

Now, there's always the degenerative exception, like SCO. Let's talk about that last.

First, let's discuss what usually happens when we see someone doing something that violates our licenses. I have two examples in mind, from my personal experience.

In the first (and this happened more than once), we found our entire source code base published on the internet by someone who wasn't us (this was pre-Open Source days). Now, this was clearly violating our license, no question. It's also rude. Guess what we did? If you're thinking anything to do with lawyers, you're wrong. One of our engineers sent an email, the content of which was something like: "Um, did you know you were doing this?". The answer: "Ohmygodohmygod! I didn't know! I'm very sorry it's fixed now". (The person had intended it for an internal website, and had misconfigured the webserver. Again, this has happend more than once.) And that was the end of it.

The second time involved an engineer coming to me and saying "I just found my code in an Open Source project. It's word for word the same, someone just stripped the @author tags and copyright headers. What should I do?". Ready to guess what I told him? Again, no lawyers. He contacted the Open Source project, and informed them that he was 100% sure that was his code. The Open Source project went through their logs, found the person responsible, and booted him from the project. Then, they removed the code. Problem solved.

Now, why would we handle things this way? Well, despite what the RIAA and SCO seemt to think, noone gets rich sueing their customers, or the communities they depend upon. Also, most people want to do the right thing, and they've just made a mistake, whether that be misconfiguring some software, or trusting the wrong person.

So now, as I promised, let's look at SCO (which, btw is a renamed Caldera (remember them?), the company formerly known as SCO was just bought by my company). They don't have any of the three things holding them back that I list above: They don't care about negative press, lawsuits are their business plan, and they intend them to be very profitable. While you should certainly care about how these suits affect the community and businesses you are a part of, the odds are, they'll never be directed at you. Why? You have no money. (Remember, they need to be profitable, which means that you'd need assets measured in the millions to make it worth their while.) Will Sun ever become like SCO? I doubt it. It took SCO years to become SCO, and they started as a very small company in the first place. In order for any doomsday scenario to play out, the community surrounding Sun's intellectual property would certainly have to become worth less than the value of destroying it for the sake of some sketchy lawsuits. Which is of vanishingly small possibility, even 10 or more years down the road.

Now, with all this in mind, keep in mind that anyone can sue you for anything at all (I love that link, and just wanted to put it in there). So I'll offer you the Jim Driscoll Guarentee (tm) - I'm putting $500 of my own money up on a bet - I'll give it to the first person who's sued over any code in GlassFish, to start your legal defense fund. It's a bet I'm confident of winning.

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