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No Takesies-Backsies: VMware Lays Claim to Vert.x

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In an announcement yesterday on the Vert.x Google Group, project leader Tim Fox announced his bizarre experience with his former employer VMware's legal team:

On the 28th December I received a letter from VMware lawyers (delivered to my door in person, no less!) that I must immediately give up and transfer to VMware all administrative rights over the following things: The Vert.x github project, the Vert.x google group, the domain and the Vert.x blog.

Vert.x is a polyglot, event-driven application framework that runs on JVM. It is a direct competitor with Node.js.

Fox had apparently been under the impression that Vert.x was "a community project sponsored by VMware" while he led the project as an employee of VMware. However, possibly because Fox led the project using company resources and while employed by VMware, Fox lost ownership of the project when he left VMware in December to join Red Hat.

It is unclear what this means for the future of the Vert.x project. Some have expressed concern that VMware may apply these shenanigans to other projects that they sponsor, like Redis.

For now, ownership of Vert.x's domain, blog, GitHub, and Google Group have been transferred to VMware. A new project leader has yet to be announced.

Update, Jan. 10: VMware and Red Hat have posted a joint response  to Fox's aforementioned Google Group post. Here's the full text:

What Tim has stated has obviously raised concerns on this group and elsewhere. So it's important that we try to allay any fears and uncertainty that the community has about the vert.x project and state clearly that VMware and Red Hat are still very much in active discussion regarding how best to support the vert.x project going forwards.  This is something that both companies are extremely keen to do.

We've been discussing various options, including whether to move the project to an open source software foundation, and would very much like to hear the views of the community.

Tim's continued status as project lead is something that both companies feel is an essential component to the success of the project.  We see no reason for this to change and wish to assure everyone on that point.

With the benefit of the support from *both* Red Hat and VMware we agree that the vert.x project has an excellent opportunity to continue to build on its popularity and successes to date and have an exciting 2013.

We'd really appreciate if everyone was patient and continued to contribute positively to the discussions on the future in this public forum, as has been the case. Many thanks to all of the input - it has not gone unnoticed.

For RedHat: Mark Little, VP Red Hat/JBoss.
For VMware: Alexis Richardson, Senior Director, VMware Inc.


Jilles Van Gurp replied on Wed, 2013/01/09 - 3:24am

I took a quick look at the github project:

1) It's Apache licensed: forking is entirely legal by anyone and indeed a nice Github feature. 

2) Instead of assigning copyright to specific entity, the license in each source file simply states: "Copyright 2011-2012 the original author or authors". That is interesting because in my interpretation that means that anyone who ever committed or had a pull request accepted is a legal copyright holder. This would be of interest in case of a relicensing effort, which I think is extremely unlikely for this reason.

3) There appears to be no copyright transfer policy in place and the commit history is littered with commits from people not employed by vmware, either directly or through pull request. All that work is effectively not owned by vmware.

4) The trademark may indeed belong to vmware, if it was registered at all. I'm assuming vmware legal was involved with setting that up. Owning the trademark is of course a very weak basis for taking command of a project in what is usually a meritocracy driven open source project. 

So, all it would take is a fork and a project rename to cut loose from vmware. Whether that is feasible or desirable depends purely on how much of a contributor vmware is and has been to this project. 

I have to agree with the author that this is a somewhat bizarre action by vmware. I don't see how this can result in anything but a lot of lost goodwill & momentum. Vmware should worry about not turning into the next Oracle here. Oracle owns a lot of defunct open source projects where the community has walked away (mysql, jenkins, open office). That could happen to vmware as well. I'd say they deserve to be slapped around in public for this cluster fuck for a while. 

Mitch Pronschinske replied on Wed, 2013/01/09 - 8:27am in response to: Jilles Van Gurp

As always, Jilles, your analysis is spot on. 

This incident reminded me a lot of the Hudson/Jenkins controversy.  People don't want to spend time and energy contributing code if there's a chance that any freedoms in how they use the software will be blocked.

Andy Piper replied on Wed, 2013/01/09 - 7:38pm in response to: Mitch Pronschinske

Do both please take a look at the joint statement that VMware and Red Hat posted to the discussion thread.

Characterising this as somehow "hostile" is not helpful, all parties are working together on a way to take this forward with the community.

Jilles Van Gurp replied on Thu, 2013/01/10 - 2:45am in response to: Andy Piper

Things seem to be headed the right way indeed. 

As for the hostile bit; sending a lawyer to somebodies doorstep as the first move is certainly a practice that needs to be discouraged. I'm glad that Red Hat and VMWare are now trying to sort this out the grown up way and are planning to keep Tim involved as the project lead. That's pretty much the best possible outcome.

Andy Piper replied on Thu, 2013/01/10 - 6:31am

You're referencing hearsay from a single person rather than the whole picture, which is a shame. I'm certainly actively involved in helping to work out a way forward :-)

Jilles Van Gurp replied on Thu, 2013/01/10 - 9:29am in response to: Andy Piper

The original email from the project lead is linked from this post, I read it and responded to that as a whole. I did not see the vmware reply. That's not hearsay.

The whole picture is:

1) lawyers contacted a project lead to essentially hand over control (thats's bad)

2) an email went out (minor shock for vmware to be confronted with what was a stupid move to begin with, I imagine)

3) people started communicating, which they should have tried from day 1

4) vmware and red hat sent out a joint announcement

Now 4 happened before my reply and I missed that. So in that sense I didn't have the full picture indeed. That doesn't really invalidate anything I said as far as I see though. 

Channing Benson replied on Tue, 2013/01/15 - 1:56pm in response to: Jilles Van Gurp

The "whole picture"?

So the very first shot fired in this skirmish was VMware (completely unprovoked) sending out the lawyers? Hmmm. Now, I don't claim to know if this is the case, but it seems unlikely that there was not a Step 0.5 that preceded Step 1.

And while you admit later that "I didn't have the full picture indeed", this lack of information doesn't invalidate that statement when you made it?

BTW, hearsay, in essence is accepting a single person's account as the complete truth without considering any supporting or opposing evidence. (Legally, it's a bit different than that, but this isn't a court.) 

It's clear from Mr. Fox's depiction of the events that he is slanting them to paint this as Big Bad Company assails Philanthropic Software Developer. Why the parenthetical phrase "(perhaps naively)?  Why include the detail about the letter being delivered in person? (I think he should have gone a little further and added the fact that when they came to the door they interrupted his all-time favorite episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants and he totally missed the part where Sponge Bob goes spatula shopping. That is a priceless moment he'll never get back.) [This is where Google AdSense inserts a promotional item for Tivo.]

I don't want to pick on Red Hat, but if this letter was in fact vetted by their lawyers and presumably Tim's manager, then they were remiss in not suggesting that those completely unnecessary flourishes be edited out. So.... They were either intentionally confrontational or unintentionally insensitive and clumsy. Furthermore, whether right or wrong in their motives for making these legal demands on Mr. Fox, if they wanted to make them in an enforceable manner, they *had* to be delivered in person. Surely you've seen this kind of thing on TV: "You've been served."

Jilles Van Gurp replied on Tue, 2013/01/15 - 3:14pm in response to: Channing Benson

Not wanting to pick any nits here but the paragraph that everybody here seems to have issues with was:

I have to agree with the author that this is a somewhat bizarre action by vmware. I don't see how this can result in anything but a lot of lost goodwill & momentum. Vmware should worry about not turning into the next Oracle here. Oracle owns a lot of defunct open source projects where the community has walked away (mysql, jenkins, open office). That could happen to vmware as well. I'd say they deserve to be slapped around in public for this cluster fuck for a while. 

That's an opinion on VMWare's initial conduct in this case and I don't retract a single letter of it. In fact, everything that has happened since has re-enforced me in this opinion which I think was neither premature nor inappropriate. Heresay would imply I was responding to rumors. Instead I was replying to the original mail by mr. Fox as well as my own analysis of what's there on Github. Mr. Fox is the undisputed (and that apparently includes vmware) project lead of this project and not just another guy. So, rather factual IMNSHO and quite far from heresay. The two combined led me to the above opinion.

Vmware trying to fix what was a bad move to begin with doesn't actually change the fact that it looked the way it looked (pretty bad) and that it needed fixing. I can totally see why they wanted to undo as much of the damage done in light of the PR shit storm that inevitably started brewing and I agree their joint letter with Red Hat was a good move in that respect. This doesn't change the fact I that I think they shouldn't have gotten themselves into that situation to begin with and are rightly being slapped around by world + dog for it now, like I suggested was appropriate. 

I disagree with you that serving notices was vmware's only option and I share your other analysis that this in all likelihood corporate stupidity. Serving notices to someone you intend to maintain a constructive working relation with (which vmware apparently wants to do) is not exactly a smart thing to do. That just isn't a productive way to conduct yourself in the OSS community. 

To be clear, as far as I can see Red Hat had no other role in this other than doing their part in making sure this got resolved amicably, after the cat got out of the bag.

All I did was call that out.

The rest of my comment was just some analysis on what the options were in terms of forking and IP ownership. All of that is still valid. None of that is heresay or particularly provocative. It's just me looking at what's on github (licenses, commit history) and pointing out that vmware's claims to anything else but the trademark are pretty weak. All that would have made a fork pretty much inevitable if vmware hadn't chosen to resolve this amicably in the end. The point being that they never really had any other alternative. Sueing would have permanently lost them this project community.

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