December 2, 2004 2:22 PM PST

Sun open-source license could mean Solaris-Linux barrier

Sun Microsystems has quietly begun seeking official open-source status for a new software license that likely will be used to govern its Solaris operating system.

But the license may inhibit cross-pollination between Solaris and Linux--a sacrifice Sun appears willing to make in its effort to attract developers and revitalize its version of Unix.

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What's new:
Sidestepping existing open-source licenses, such as the GPL that governs the heart of Linux, Sun has proposed a new type of license that could cover its open-source release of Solaris.

Bottom line:
Sun hopes an open-source Solaris will attract developers and revitalize the OS. But the proposed license could hamper cross-pollination between Solaris and Linux and, as one commentator has it, add to a list of licenses that create "lots of little lumps of software that can't be combined." Sun, however, calls its license "less burdensome" and seems ready to sacrifice any benefits of Linux intermingling.

More stories on open-source Solaris

On Wednesday evening, CNET News.com has learned, Sun submitted a description of its Common Development and Distribution License, or CDDL, to the Open Source Initiative. The nonprofit group reviews licenses and bestows official open-source status on those that meet the Open Source Definition requirements.

The CDDL lets programmers see, change and distribute source code for any programming project it governs. Unlike some open-source licenses, it requires that modifications be shared as open-source software.

Sun hopes its open-source move will attract developers to Solaris and reinvigorate the operating system. Solaris waned in popularity with the Internet bubble burst and with the rise of Linux, which works better on widely used servers based on x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon.

But if Sun chooses to release Solaris under the CDDL--and it hasn't committed to doing so--the choice likely will prevent direct cross-pollination between the Unix variant and its prime competitor, Linux. That sharing is one of the prime advantages of the open-source philosophy; making Solaris open-source raised the possibility that it could benefit from Linux features such as widespread hardware support, and Linux could gain from Solaris features such as multiprocessor abilities.

Sun's CDDL description addressed the difficulties of intermingling software covered by the CDDL with software covered by the General Public License, or GPL--the license that governs Linux.

"The CDDL is not expected to be compatible with the GPL, since it contains requirements that are not in the GPL," Claire Giordano of Sun's CDDL team said in its submission. "Thus, it is likely that files released under the CDDL will not be able to be combined with files released under the GPL to create a larger program."

Open Source Initiative President Eric Raymond declined to comment yet on whether the license meets those criteria. But if the Open Source Initiative approves the license, the CDDL will join a list that already includes dozens of licenses.

This proliferation of open-source licenses is a problem, said Larry Rosen, an intellectual-property attorney who has advised OSI and who wrote "Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law."

"What we end with up is...lots of little lumps of software that can't be combined," Rosen said in an interview. "It is, in fact, a problem creating a commons of software if every company has its own commons."

Sun wouldn't comment on whether Solaris 10 will be covered by the CDDL. "We're not drawing linkage between that and any of Sun's products," spokesman Russ Castronovo said.

However, executives have said Sun will seek the blessing of the Open Source Initiative for the license, and the clock is ticking. Sun had

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