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LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org: One Year After the Schism

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When I first started using Linux, way back in the last century, one of the biggest challenges was the lack of a decent productivity suite of the sort to which every Windows user is accustomed. The only real option was StarOffice, which worked but was unbearably slow to load and cumbersome to use. Sun Microsystems bought StarDivision, the makers of StarOffice, in 1999 and released the source code to the suite in July 2000. Thus was OpenOffice.org born, with the intention of providing a viable open source alternative to Microsoft Office. Sun got bought by Oracle in 2010 and commercial development of OpenOffice.org was officially terminated shortly thereafter.

For a traditional closed source application, Oracle’s abandonment may well have been the end of the line. But OpenOffice.org had been released under the LGPL, the Lesser GNU Public License. This free software license specifically states:

You may modify your copy or copies of the Library or any portion of it, thus forming a work based on the Library, and copy and distribute such modifications or work under the terms of Section 1 above, provided that you also meet all of these conditions:

a) The modified work must itself be a software library.
b) You must cause the files modified to carry prominent notices stating that you changed the files and the date of any change.
c) You must cause the whole of the work to be licensed at no charge to all third parties under the terms of this License.
d) …

So when Oracle called it quits, dedicated members of the OpenOffice.org community pooled their resources and set up The Document Foundation to provide structure and leadership to the continued development of the open source code used by OpenOffice.org.

The Document Foundation is an open independent self-governing meritocratic organization, which builds on ten years of dedicated work by the OpenOffice.org Community. TDF was created in the belief that the culture born of an independent foundation brings out the best in corporate and volunteer contributors, and will deliver the best free office suite.

The new product was called LibreOffice. At the time, this was a simple, direct fork of the existing codebase. A simple find-and-replace would have been performed to substitute “LibreOffice” for all instances of “OpenOffice.org”.

The Document Foundation quickly set out to differentiate itself from the project governance that had gone before. You see, Sun Microsystems had long been requiring contributors to OpenOffice.org to assign the copyright of their contributions to Sun. In many ways, this makes sense and isn’t really a big deal: it allows a single entity to control and defend the copyright of the entire work. But in many ways, such copyright reassignment is anathema to open source collaboration. Moreover, as sole arbiter of the project’s life, Sun had the power to reject contributions for any reason. As such, The Document Foundation specifically rejected the need for copyright reassignment, opening the doors for all comers, and established a strict meritocratic model for evaluating contributions.

So it’s been a year since the formation of The Document Foundation. Development activity has been strong, with more than 300 developers committing more than 25,000 changes. Major commercial contributors include SuSE, Red Hat and Canonical. Hundreds of individuals developers have contributed, looking to improve a project they value.

The first stable release of LibreOffice was on January 25, 2011. Since then it has been downloaded more than six million times, with 90% of those downloads being used on Windows computers. LibreOffice is now the default productivity suite in most Linux distributions today. The Document Foundation estimates that it’s being used by about 25 million people across Linux, Mac and Windows operating systems.

In light of the exodus of developers from OpenOffice.org to LibreOffice, Oracle has recently decided to donate the OpenOffice.org code to the Apache Software Foundation, so that the ASF can shepherd it as a true open source project. The old OpenOffice.org is now “Apache OpenOffice.org (incubating)“, and is a member of the Apache Incubator.

Except that Oracle didn’t really donate the code, at least not in the usual sense of that word; nor have they transferred any copyrights. According to Ross Gardler, Vice President of Community Development at The Apache Software Foundation, Oracle “have granted a sufficient license to allow Apache to move forward in a completely unencumbered
fashion. The terms of this license are described in our standard Software Grant Agreement at http://www.apache.org/licenses/software-grant.txt.”

The Incubator is an Apache program for ensuring that new projects develop the kind of community traction necessary to survive. According to the Incubator website, “[a]ll code donations from external organisations and existing external projects wishing to join Apache enter through the Incubator.” This is why the “(incubating)” suffix is tacked on to the already cumbersome “Apache OpenOffice.org” project name. The OpenOffice.org domain has also been donated to Apache, and will at some point move to Apache hardware. For now, it’s still residing on Oracle hardware.

One important thing to note about Apache projects is that they all use the Apache Software License. This is a permissive license that does not contain the “copyleft” provisions of the GNU licenses. This means that Apache OpenOffice.org is now licensed under the ASL, not the LGPL.

If Sun had not required copyright assignment, then the process of changing licenses would be a nightmare: every individual contributor would retain the copyright on their contributions and would need to give their assent to a license change. It’s almost guaranteed that there would be at least some resistance to a license change, which effectively means that no license change would occur.

The switch was easy to accomplish, though, specifically because Sun had previously required copyright assignment on all contributions: when Oracle bought Sun, they immediately gained complete and unfettered ownership of the copyright to all the code, and the copyright holder is permitted to re-license the work at any time.

Today the Apache OpenOffice.org project is alive and well, though they have not yet released anything. They’re still in the process of refining the build process, and building the requisite infrastructure within Apache. They’re also engaged in IP clearance: finding bits of third-party GPL-licensed code and libraries that may have been bundled with the old OpenOffice.org and replacing it with Apache licensed (or compatible) code and libraries. This is a surprisingly non-trivial task, given the size and complexity of the OOo codebase.

I asked Gardler whether Apache has any plans to try to reclaim the status of default productivity suite in major Linux distributions. He replied that there “is no desire to directly compete with LibreOffice or any other open source project. The Apache OpenOffice.org community are interested in creating the best permissively licensed suite of personal productivity tools we can.”

That clause “permissively licensed” is an important one in the discussion about LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice.org. LibreOffice still uses the LGPL, and while that license is more permissive than the normal GPL, it’s still less permissive than the Apache license. Gardler went on to clarify:

This means Apache licensed code can be reused in any downstream project. It is hoped that there will be opportunities for collaboration on core components that facilitate document exchange between OOo and all other projects seeking to work with ODF documents.

Like The Document Foundation, the Apache Software Foundation is a meritocratic organization, rewarding participants for the quality of their contributions.

Newcomers looking to get involved with Apache OpenOffice.org might want to look at the Help Wanted page on the wiki.

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