back to article Sun accused of hardball open source project tactics

Neil Wilson, a recently laid-off Sun Microsystems employee and a former owner of the OpenDS project, has accused his ex-boss of using strong-arm tactics to keep control of his project. In an open letter Wilson said he's finally gone public to "clear the air" having kept quit for fear of potential retaliation from Sun. …


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  1. Jonathan Richards

    You either care, or you don't

    And if you do, Use The Fork, Luke.

  2. Brett Brennan

    So everyone lost on this one?

    This article outlines a situation that is absolutely normal, "business-as-usual" for a large corporation - and one that is usually not countenanced by upper management.

    If a small team gets a "really good thing" going, like the OpenDS project, unless they have a strong Defender in the middle management tree, other "vulture" (no offense, El Reg) managers will swoop down and attempt to take over the project for their personal political benefit. This usually happens when there is an organization change, like moving the division that the project is embedded in to another management tree. The incumbent managers from the new owner come through like Southeby's agents at an estate sale, looking for the gems that they can grab to enhance their prestige and bottom line. The owners of the project - generically, it doesn't have to be open source - are too far down the food chain to fight with these vultures, unless they have a more senior manager (a VP is a good start) that can protect them.

    The net result is that a very promising and/or profitable group gets sucked into another team, and the new team leadership, through twisting goal achievement metrics and design change pressure, makes the owners look like clods that need to be dismissed ASAP. Without "air cover" from a senior exec, the team members are usually gone within 6 months, "hopefully" via voluntary separation, so there is no need to worry about severance benefits.

    The project is then subsumed into the new management's team, and, unless it already has a reproducible product in production, is usually bungled to death in short order. The manager responsible usually gets promoted before this happens, and their successor is stuck with explaining the loss.

    Get over it. This is life in a big corporation. It WILL drive an Engineer type insane, or at least out of the industry, because there is no logic in the action, and Engineers abhor a lack of logic.

    (BTW, completely off topic, this is why Microsoft was so successful back in the Early Days. The founders were "Chinese Brothers" - each skilled in a different area of the product or company - that NEVER attempted to grab authority over another founder's skill area. Bill and Steve are the epitome of this kind of relationship: Steve NEVER questions Bill's tech skill or vision, Bill NEVER questions Steve's business skills or execution. They work and play as the left and right halves of the same brain. It's a beautiful thing when it works this well.)

  3. Damien Jorgensen

    OpenSource lol

    When it comes to "opensource" I dont think anyone in their right mind can use "sun" in the same sentence

  4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Software written on employer's time is written for the employer shocker

    Open source does not mean democratic. If the project was written by Sun employees during their work time then, at least according to US law, the copyright automatically belongs to Sun and assignment of copyright is much more valuable than forms of governance but if we assume that the project was set up by initially by Sun then governance should have been with Sun until Sun decided otherwise. An awful lot of projects have started like this and long before "open source" became fashionable: IBM's EWS programme and similar ones at HP and elsewhere saw lots of free software released into the wild with licensing and disclaimers coming from the companies not the authors.

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  6. J


    If it is truly open source, Sun does not own anything (only trademark), although they do have the copyright. Any one of us can get the code and do whatever we want with it within the boundaries of the license. If it is the GPL (the one I'm familiar with, that's why the example), then one can do anything but restrict the GPL freedoms, for example.

    Like it or not, that's the way it goes with open source. Big, old companies too used to the "old ways" are trying to ride the wave but have no clue how to, apparently. The reflexes kick in all the time.

  7. Smell My Finger

    Sun's in it for the money?

    I can't believe how many chumps don't understand the value of open source to companies like Sun: they get development done cheap, they get a huge community of zealots, sorry, evangelists and they get a big stick to beat Microsoft with. Anyone so stupid to work on open source for a corporation deserves all they get, though they aren't as stupid as the ones who work in their own time for the benefit of the likes of Sun. Open source and for-profit companies have got an irreconcilable conflict of interests - you just end up as an unpaid proxy working for The Man who makes a profit from your efforts.

  8. Matt Bryant Silver badge


    What a horror story! A nightmare of corporate insanity! Someone at Sun needs to be taken seriously to task over this complete madness. I mean, writing a directory service IN JAVA!?!?!

    To me, it looks like the project team saw the axe coming and tried to write in a bit of fireproofing. That kind of thing doesn't go down well with management types, they see it as both obstructive and threatening to the company's control of a project. What this needed was a cool management head to calm the waters, get the trust of the team back, get the governance policy changed back, and then get the project back on track. Unfortunately, 95% of middle management would have reacted in exactly the same alpha-dog threat response the Sun management did. Looks like Sun are thinning out the wrong bit of the herd....

  9. Graham Wood

    Intellectual Property

    Whilst it's true that in a lot of contracts, there is a clause as discussed above, it's not always the case. However, if the project was "sponsored" and resourced by Sun, it seems reasonable that they should have at least a major say in whether the governance changes...

    I have written code during company time (whilst I was a 1st line support monkey, and with a couple of the other monkeys) that was even for something used by the company, and on dicussing it with the management we were told that the IP was ours, not the companies.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    @Damien Jorgensen

    Check your facts before spouting off. Sun has been the largest coprorate contributor to open source communities ($400m by some estimates, $2bn by Sun's own, which includes Solaris) for a long time, and has been using and contributing to open source software for over 20 years. Linux is a very late arrival at that party.

  11. Paridaen

    Re: so everyone lost on this one?

    Probably the members of the OpenDS team also worked on the closed variant of Sun's DS, making the situation more complicated. I mean, how many ideas did they get from the closed variant and implemented in the OpenDS variant?

  12. Richard Kay

    @smell my finger

    "Open source and for-profit companies have got an irreconcilable conflict of interests - you just end up as an unpaid proxy working for The Man who makes a profit from your efforts."

    How kind of smell_my_finger to warn us poor naive and foolish programmers about the dangers of working for nothing on open source that benefits big, bad and evil corporations who make a profit . As if we don't have any self interest in our donating source code for evil profitmakers to use entirely for private ends.

    Personally I don't have a problem with contributing fixes upstream which I have to make to what I use to do what I want with it, so that I don't have to figure out how to apply the same patch second and third times around whenever a new upstream version comes along. My fixes are consequently more valuable to me after they have been shared than when I kept them to myself. I have every reason to believe large profitmakers have the same motivation for doing the same thing that I do, and as they have more to gain they are more likely to want to shoulder the cost of coordinating application of generally useful fixes upstream.

  13. amanfromMars Silver badge

    As subtle as a sledgehammer...

    It was just a small textual change.."

    You cannot be serious. Semantically, it was a fundamental change.

  14. Charles Manning

    One way that this stacks up

    Sure, the code is most likely owned by the company if developed in company time and most likely they can do what they want with it.

    There is is a possiblity though that this might not be the case. If the programmers were hired into the job with a promise of this being open sourced, then that might be binding on the company. ie. the employee might have attached some value to the opensoured-ness of the project and by changing this the company are violating the agreement with the employee as much as if they only paid half his salary, or promised him free coffee and then gave him decaff instead.

    Of course any sensible company well staffed with lawyers is unlikely to commit themselves without a rash of get-out clauses in their favour.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not about code but control

    As with most issues with open source projects, the issue wasn't ownership of the code but control of the project. There are a few open-source projects that have successfully moved from company to company with the founder - Python is probably a good example.

  16. Rose Rivetts

    If the OpenDS bylaws had said STEWARD or TRUSTEE & not OWNER, then Sun wouldn't have a claim...

    If the Open Source Community wishes to ensure that commercial companies don't usurp their employees' positions as representatives on Open Source projects, then the community should NOT USE THE TERM OWNER IN THEIR BYLAWS when the people are in fact holding positions as STEWARD, TRUSTEE, GUARDIAN...take your pick.

    If the OpenSource Communities don't want to play in a world that includes BUSINESS controlling the landscape...then the OpenSource project players should not voice or signaturely endorse the use of any BUSINESS TERMS or CONTEMPORARY BUSINESS LEGAL CONCEPTS that can end up in legal documents adversely affecting the project!

    In fact, the word "King" comes to mind as a better choice than owner. How much power would Sun have if the OpenDS bylaws said: "The King is Steward over the Programmer Peoples. The King is Trustee over the properties created by the Peoples. The King reserves the right to give policy decision making authority to another Knight, then that Knight becomes King".

    If the former Sun employee was merely Steward or Trustee, then Sun would not have any claim to Ownership. As it stands, Sun does in fact retain OWNERSHIP of any claims that an employee might have as OWNER if they obtained it on BUSINESS TIME in the COURSE OF BEING EMPLOYED WITHIN SUN'S BUSINESS...even if they are given to the employee by another organization. Any organization! Even the Queen of England!

    If a Sun employee were visiting the Queen of England and she Knighted him and gave him a sword & coin-filled cash box for writing JAVA for JESTERS...the sword & cash belong to Sun.

    If the Queen made the Knighted Sun employee STEWARD of the SWORD and TRUSTEE for the DISTRIBUTION of the ROYAL CASH Sun wouldn't have a leg to stand on.


    As far as the alledged threats, it depends on how it was presented. I'm betting that the managers said something like this to the employee:

    "We request that you release any personal ownership claim you have on OpenDS & allow the transfer any held Owner position to an active employee of Sun as a matter of the Business Conduct Agreement you signed. I am telling you, that as your manager if you don't do this you would be insubordinate. One consequence of insubordination is that by law you can be terminated then for Corporate Misconduct. When you are terminated for misconduct, you by state law are not entitled to an Unemployment Claim. That is not Sun's run...that is state law. Also, depending on Sun's current policy at this time, you can lose your opportunity to elect COBRA Continuation of Health Care Benefits. You then have 63 days to obtain new coverage under an insurance policy. If you don't do this within 63 days, any medical preconditions that you might have can make you ineligible under some individual medical policies. In addition, a future employer's group policy may also exclude any coverage for preconditions subject to a waiting period."

    What I've just shared with you, Mr/Ms. R. U. AlmostInsubordidate is a combination of Sun Separation Policy (offer of COBRA) and Federal Law (continuation & portability of insurance coverage under HIPAA-the Health Insurance Privacy & Accountability Act). My point is, it is not just all about Sun's rules. Laws apply here as well.

    Therefore, I recommend that you not be insubordinate at this time. When you became a Sun employee you agreed to the Standard Business Conduct Guidelines. Sun retains ownership of any Ownership claim you might have as to OpenDS."


    Would the above be a threat? No....merely statements of fact. The facts just happen to be ~very harse realities.~ Could the manager's statements be misunderstood as a threat by someone on the defensive? Most certainly it could be perceived as a threat.

    I'm told that when programmers & engineers sign on to Sun they sign a Business Conduct statement which states in the Sun "Standards of Business Conduct" that "Any work developed by Employees or Contractors within the scope of their employment with Sun belongs to Sun.

    If the former employee thinks that the Business Conduct Guide only applies to the WORKs and doesn't apply to OWNERSHIP OF A BOARD POSITION....they are of course free to dispute that. But, they better make an effort to truly understand the other sides position with an open mind & a clear understand of the facts, policies, & applicable law. And most of all, understand that WORDS MATTER.

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