Copyright Changes

The following post is a little long, so I figured it might be best to put the “point” upfront. The OpenNMS Group has acquired the copyright to the original OpenNMS code. Thus, for the first time in seven years, all of the OpenNMS copyright is held under one organization.

I didn’t start OpenNMS. It was started by three guys named Steve Giles, Luke Rindfuss and Brian Weaver. They formed a company called PlatformWorks that did the initial OpenNMS code framework, and they grew to include such OpenNMS icons as Shane O’Donnell and our very own Ben Reed.

Platformworks was acquired by a company called Atipa, which later morphed into Oculan. Oculan brought to market a network management appliance that was based on OpenNMS with some additional functionality built in and a high level of support (each appliance would periodically “phone home” reporting problems, getting upgrades, etc.) but they had no business focused directly on OpenNMS.

Since there was a lot of interest in OpenNMS as a platform, in September of 2001 I was brought on board to build a services and support business around it. The first OpenNMS support customer signed on in December of that year, and I’m happy to say they are still a customer.

In May of 2002 Oculan received new investment, and the decision was made to focus solely on the appliance. OpenNMS 1.0 had just been released, but Oculan was no longer going to provide resources to maintain it.

Having worked at that point in time for nearly 15 years in network management, I saw the potential in OpenNMS. I also knew that if no one stepped up, the project would most likely die. So I went into Steve Giles’ office and asked for OpenNMS. We talked for a bit, and then he looked at his watch and said if I was off his payroll by Friday, I could have OpenNMS and a couple of servers.

That was the easy part. The hard part was explaining to my wife that I was starting my own business selling free software. Note to all you newlyweds out there – I have learned that this is one of those decisions you need to make together. Don’t forget that.

“Getting” OpenNMS meant little more than getting the name, being promoted to “admin” for OpenNMS on various sites, and the “opennms.*” domain names. I did not get the copyright to the OpenNMS code, since Oculan viewed that as their intellectual property (IP). I didn’t really care, since I was planning on publishing all future changes under the GPL, and that’s what I did.

While OpenNMS kept growing, albeit slowly, Oculan flared brightly but then went away. They closed their doors in May of 2004.

In September of 2004, The OpenNMS Group came into existence with myself, David Hustace and Matt Brozowski as founders. We’ve seen amazing growth with our “spend less than you earn” business plan, and even managed to hire Ben Reed, one of the original OpenNMS guys. And we did it all with GPL’d software.

However, not owning the copyright has presented us with some issues. First, it is hard to provide indemnification if you don’t own 100% of the code. And second, it makes defending the theft of your code difficult.

Last year we hired Moglen Ravicher, the law team behind the Software Freedom Law Center, to represent us as we pursued some “irregularities” with the use of OpenNMS code by Cittio in their Watchtower product. OpenNMS is a Java program published without a classpath exception, so simply importing OpenNMS code into a program makes the program a derivative work (note that Sun’s openjdk is published with a classpath exception for this very reason) and it looked like, at a minimum, that is what Cittio was doing.

Cittio’s initial response was that if they were using OpenNMS, it was only OpenNMS 1.0, for which we did not hold the copyright. And since we didn’t own the copyright, we could not pursue any copyright violations.

I have my doubts as to whether or not that was a true statement, but it had the desired effect of stopping our legal action. The Oculan IP had bounced around a bit, and landed at Raritan, so I contacted them to see if they would join in our lawsuit. With both Raritan and OpenNMS together, their excuse would become moot.

Unfortunately, we found out that the Free Software Foundation had a complaint with the way Raritan was using some GPL’d code in one of their appliances. This was definitely accidental, but the fact remained that we could not move forward until this matter was resolved. Due to the age of the code it was hard for Brett Smith and his team at the FSF to verify that the changes Raritan had made resulted in compliance, and so it took a year before Raritan and the FSF agreed that everything had been addressed.

Now that we could move forward, Cittio abruptly closed its doors and sold its assets to Nimsoft. Nimsoft contacted us to make sure that we were satisfied that no OpenNMS code would be involved in the code they were salvaging from Watchtower, and while I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, I believe that will be the case.

There was really no reason to continue to pursue Cittio, since with any failed company even a favorable judgement would have us getting in line behind all the other creditors, so we decided it was best just to let it end.

During this year that I worked with Raritan, I was impressed at how eager they were to both resolve their issues with the FSF as well as work with our small company. They could have sold Cittio a license to OpenNMS and made it very difficult for us to pursue any action but instead they stuck by us.

In the seven years since OpenNMS effectively was forked, the products have taken extremely different paths, thus with no real conflict of interest at hand I approached Raritan about buying the copyright to the original 1.0 code. We worked out an agreement and now the OpenNMS code is wholly owned by The OpenNMS Group, while Raritan has a license to continue to use the code in their products.

This is both exciting and scary to me. First of all, we are now in debt for the first time, although we hope to have that paid off as quickly as possible. Second, we now can truly offer indemnity to our support clients. Finally, as we move forward and investigate investment in order to grow, there is some IP for an investor to value, instead of just the good looks and fine wit of our team.

This will not change the lives of the average OpenNMS user one bit. If you check out the code you will see some changes in the copyright header, but that’s it. Do not expect to see new, proprietary “enterprise extensions” like the fauxpen source guys. In fact, we plan to reorganize part of the code and publish it with a “classpath” exception to allow for the easier addition of monitors and collectors, etc. Thus we hope to make OpenNMS even more free.

OpenNMS is growing at an amazing rate this year, but nothing that happens will ever change my two requirements for the project: OpenNMS will always be free (under an OSI-approved license) and OpenNMS will never suck.

Thanks for being a part of making that happen.

One Response to “Copyright Changes”

  1. lovelace Says:

    So, I missed seeing this while I was on vacation, but having just read it now I wanted to say congratulations and good luck with everything! It’s nice to see ownership of the code is all back in once place now.