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Java Viewpoint: Free But Shackled - The "Java Trap"

Java Viewpoint: Free But Shackled - The "Java Trap"


As of December 2006, Sun is in the middle of rereleasing its Java platform under the GNU GPL. When this license change is completed, we expect that Java will no longer be a trap. Nonetheless, the general issue described here will remain important, because any non-free library or programming platform can cause a similar problem. We must learn a lesson from the history of Java, so we can avoid other traps in the future.

Please also see: The Javascript Trap

•   •   •

If your program is free software, it is basically ethical - but there is a trap you must be on guard for. Your program, though in itself free, may be restricted by non-free software that it depends on. Since the problem is most prominent today for Java programs, we call it the Java Trap.

A program is free software if its users have certain crucial freedoms. Roughly speaking, they are: the freedom to run the program, the freedom to study and change the source, the freedom to redistribute the source and binaries, and the freedom to publish improved versions. (See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.) Whether any given program is free software depends solely on the meaning of its license.

Whether the program can be used in the Free World, used by people who mean to live in freedom, is a more complex question. This is not determined by the program's own license, because no program works in isolation. Every program depends on other programs. For instance, a program needs to be compiled or interpreted, so it depends on a compiler or interpreter. If compiled into byte code, it depends on a byte code interpreter. Moreover, it needs libraries in order to run, and it may also invoke other separate programs that run in other processes. All of these programs are dependencies. Dependencies may be necessary for the program to run at all, or they may be necessary only for certain features. Either way, all or part of the program cannot operate without the dependencies.

If some of a program's dependencies are non-free, this means that all or part of the program is unable to run in an entirely free system--it is unusable in the Free World. Sure, we could redistribute the program and have copies on our machines, but that's not much good if it won't run. That program is free software, but it is effectively shackled by its non-free dependencies.

This problem can occur in any kind of software, in any language. For instance, a free program that only runs on Microsoft Windows is clearly useless in the Free World. But software that runs on GNU/Linux can also be useless if it depends on other non-free software. In the past, Motif (before we had LessTif) and Qt (before its developers made it free software) were major causes of this problem. Most 3D video cards work fully only with non-free drivers, which also cause this problem. But the major source of this problem today is Java, because people who write free software often feel Java is sexy. Blinded by their attraction to the language, they overlook the issue of dependencies, and they fall into the Java Trap.

Sun's implementation of Java is non-free. Blackdown is also non-free; it is an adaptation of Sun's proprietary code. The standard Java libraries are non-free also. We do have free implementations of Java, such as the GNU Java Compiler and GNU Classpath, but they don't support all the features yet. We are still catching up.

If you develop a Java program on Sun's Java platform, you are liable to use Sun-only features without even noticing. By the time you find this out, you may have been using them for months, and redoing the work could take more months. You might say, "It's too much work to start over." Then your program will have fallen into the Java Trap; it will be unusable in the Free World.

The reliable way to avoid the Java Trap is to have only a free implementation of Java on your system. Then if you use a Java feature or library that free software does not yet support, you will find out straightaway, and you can rewrite that code immediately.

Sun continues to develop additional "standard" Java libraries, and nearly all of them are non-free; in many cases, even library's specification is a trade secret, and Sun's latest license for these specifications prohibits release of anything less than a full implementation of the specification. (See http://jcp.org/aboutJava/communityprocess/JSPA2.pdf and http://jcp.org/aboutJava/communityprocess/final/jsr129/j2me_pb-1_0-fr-spec-license.html, for examples.

Fortunately, that specification license does permit releasing an implementation as free software; others who receive the library can be allowed to change it and are not required to adhere to the specification. But the requirement has the effect of prohibiting the use of a collaborative development model to produce the free implementation. Use of that model would entail publishing incomplete versions, which those who have read the spec are not allowed to do.

In the early days of the Free Software Movement, it was impossible to avoid depending on non-free programs. Before we had the GNU C compiler, every C program (free or not) depended on a non-free C compiler. Before we had the GNU C library, every program depended on a non-free C library. Before we had Linux, the first free kernel, every program depended on a non-free kernel. Before we had Bash, every shell script had to be interpreted by a non-free shell. It was inevitable that our first programs would initially be hampered by these dependencies, but we accepted this because our plan included rescuing them subsequently. Our overall goal, a self-hosting GNU operating system, included free replacements for all those dependencies; if we reached the goal, all our programs would be rescued. Thus it happened: with the GNU/Linux system, we can now run these programs on free platforms.

The situation is different today. We now have powerful free operating systems and many free programming tools. Whatever job you want to do, you can do it on a free platform; there is no need to accept a non-free dependency even temporarily. The main reason people fall into the trap today is because they are not thinking about it. The easiest solution to the problem of the Java Trap is to teach people not to fall into it.

To keep your Java code safe from the Java Trap, install a free Java development environment and use it. More generally, whatever language you use, keep your eyes open, and check the free status of programs your code depends on. The easiest way to verify that program is free is by looking for it in the Free Software Directory (http://www.fsf.org/directory). If a program is not in the directory, you can check its license(s) against the list of free software licenses (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html).

We are trying to rescue the trapped Java programs, so if you like the Java language, we invite you to help in developing GNU Classpath. Trying your programs with the the GJC Compiler and GNU Classpath, and reporting any problems you encounter in classes already implemented, is also useful. However, finishing GNU Classpath will take time; if more non-free libraries continue to be added, we may never have all the latest ones. So please don't put your free software in shackles. When you write an application program today, write it to run on free facilities from the start.

Copyright 2004 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

This copyright notice supersedes all copyright notices on the SYS-CON Media and Ulitzer sites.

More Stories By Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Gnu Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for "GNU's Not Unix"), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them have lost. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. He is the principal or initial author of GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, the GNU Debugger GDB and parts of other packages. He is also president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Any copyright notice in his articles supersedes all copyright notices on the SYS-CON and Ulitzer sites.

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Most Recent Comments
Behrang Saeedzadeh 05/29/04 10:57:53 AM EDT

"If Sun had GPL''d Java early on, there would be no .NET today. There would be no need, as Java would have become the de-facto language for Windows applications and Microsoft would have been forced to go along"

Just another baseless forecast!

And there's not such a "Java Trap". The only trap I'm aware of is "IBM Trap" that is the school of thought that supports and encourages open sourcing Java for vague reasons.

melinda 05/04/04 07:44:45 PM EDT

For those of you who agree with the "Java should be free" line of thinking, what are you doing to encourage Sun to make it more so?

Raven Morris 04/23/04 04:12:19 PM EDT

Re: Marco

"RMS did not invent free software there was the BSD license and public domain software before he came along."

That is correct, he invented "Free" software with a capital F, which is very different from "free" software that can mean many, many different things. "Freeware" is free software, as are "Shareware", "Public Domain" and "BSD-licensed software". BSD-licensed, however, is as different than Free software as commercial software is. To take a bit of the speech:

Free software is about Freedoms and not about software cost.

"GPL is fine for tools like compilers but sucks for frameworks, libraries, etc."

I disagree with you 100% on that. I have thousands of libraries, graphical/textual/server applications, development environments, tools and utilities released under that GNU GPL which I rely on and use daily. When libraries need to be linked from closed source programs, there is the LGPL -- how does this not work for you ?

Marco 04/16/04 09:38:40 AM EDT

I think Ron above pretty much says it all. RMS did not invent free software there was the BSD license and public domain software before he came along.

I would like to see an "honesty" open source license where people/companies were free to use the code for commercial or non-commercial apps but would give back any bug-fixes/improvements they came up with for that particular code. Give something take something. Slightly different from BSD.

GPL is fine for tools like compilers but sucks for frameworks, libraries, etc.

we blew it 04/16/04 09:17:53 AM EDT

can I get a printer driver for my new laser printer that''s free?

Ron 04/16/04 02:00:10 AM EDT

As is always the case with the GNU GPL, "free" == !free.

Code encumbered by the GNU GPL cannot be used in commercial projects without forcing the entire project to fall under the GPL. That''s a no-go for any type of software that is to be sold commercially.

All of these pipe dreams are great for hobbyists, but as a software developer who likes to eat and live in a nice house and be able to support my family, I am forced on a daily basis to write software that is to be sold. Therefore, my definition of "free" is different from Mr. Stahlman''s, although I tend to agree with his philosophy in principal.

For me, "free software" is software that I can freely use, modify, redistribute (in either modified or unmodified form), and and incorporate into ANY project, without requiring that I open up the source code to the project. That basically means BSD to me. Although, if the software runs properly as-is and I don''t have to extend it, the LGPL is good too. I have published lots of code under the GPL and the LGPL, but only certain types of code work well that way.

In the real world, there are trade secrets and other tricks that a professional software developer has to put into play in order to leverage the most income from his/her development effort. Opening up the source code just isn''t profitable in niche-market software projects that you want to make money off of.

I''m a big contributor to open source, and I use lots of OSS libraries in the commercial applications I develop. But I will not use a GPL''ed library in any of my projects because I don''t want to contaminate my projects with that business-killer of a license.

For me, the JDK is "free enough". It''s free enough to be able to download and redistribute it with my software. But it''s not too free. Someone has to keep a rein on the APIs and the VM. If you have a look at the Linux kernel, or the Mozilla APIs, they change from release to release. That means that other libraries that depended on the APIs being a certain way, now have to be updated to reflect the new APIs. That kind of nonsense would be the death of Java.

I''m a huge open-source advocate, but please...I like my Java the way it is. Don''t go changin'' it. And anyone worth his salt as a Java developer would agree with me.

Randy Poznan 04/14/04 03:09:22 PM EDT

I think java's proprietary-ness far less scary than some of the GNU licensed commercial products that are out there like redhat and mysql. Now they selling their GNU licensed code for "commercial" use on a per cpu basis. No small business can choose to use the jdbc driver and build a simple app with mysql without paying for a per cpu mysql license. At least java is free enough that you dont have to pay sun to use it to build stuff. What will happen if there is a new free GNU java environment with new features that sun doesnt support and you have to pay per cpu licenses to get it. IF that is where free is headed man, might as well be using UNIX.

Derek Berube 04/14/04 09:26:18 AM EDT

To me, it seems that RSM is just trying to raise a call to arms for the open source developers of the world to try to force Sun''s hand with respect to their stewardship of the Java platform. I fail to see how programming with the Java programming language is a "Trap" more so than writing code to run on anything other than GNU/LINUX.

From a developer perspective, I''ve been very happy with the JCP''s stewardship of the Java platform. As with any standards body, there are times that I wish they would move faster, but at the end of the day the thing that I value most in Java is the ability to have a single base of code that runs across virtually any platform. There needs to be some entity that carries a stick to ensure that companies do not release implementations of the Java Platform that do not conform to the JCP-approved standard.

The only time I would hope that Java would be released to the Open Source community would be if, for some reason or another, Sun were to become insolvent and fall off the face of the earth. It would truly be a loss to the development world for the Java platform to disappear into some legal black hole.

Ulf Pietruschka 04/13/04 11:41:18 AM EDT

For my customers "FREE" means free of charge. And this is the main point for many java developers (resp. companies offering java development), since the cost of any additional non-free software or service reduces your profit.
The discussed definition of the term "FREE" is actually useless and does not influence my work in any way. Does it hurt, when you fall into the "java trap" ? Wake up and do not waste your time with plain philosophical questions. Sun currently provides the best java implementation (and the FREE implementations are not even close to it in terms of quality and completeness) and I can''t see any advantage for me and my work in switching to a free implementation !

Simon 04/13/04 11:17:55 AM EDT

History, which most of us are only too quick to forget, shows us _very_ clearly that a degree of stability is a prerequisite to software being accepted by the "real world." Remember that place? It''s the place that actually pays the developers of free software, and like it or not, it has to be there for anything to become anywhere near as successful as Java has. Sun''s stewardship of Java has given us something that you can recreate for "free" (by any definition) if you choose, but you can''t call it Java unless it''s demonstrably stable and compatible. That seems pretty darned fair to me. More importantly, it seems useful. The "free" to which RS alludes isn''t free either--simply because it might not run on what I have because of those incompatibilities. Sure, I''m "free" to fix those but frankly I''ll take the half-free that means the stuff works in preference to the half-free that doesn''t work.

And, as has been said, RS''s notion of "free" is an illusion until or unless the hardware is freely reproducible. Clearly that''s not going to happen without some massive advances in ink-jet printer technology.

Live in the real world guys, it''s full of compromises. This particular compromise (don''t call it Java unless it works properly) is a very valuable one.

Ramón Jiménez 04/13/04 10:59:31 AM EDT

I was surprised to see so many comments on a JDJ article. It''s been a while! Alas, many of these comments have been copied verbatim from the Slashdot thread on this issue. I would like to believe they''ve been posted by the same authors, otherwise it''s sad to have our communication channels plagiarised so openly.

SMR 04/13/04 10:23:47 AM EDT

To what end do we seek the freeing software of every last software dependency when the hardware it must run on is not free? When my free desktops, servers, network, and high speed Internet connections show up on my doorstep I might pay start paying attention. Until then the only thing I can admit to approaching "free" is the amusement of it all.

Chris Maeda 04/13/04 10:02:41 AM EDT

Stallman''s argument is essentially that we should not use the no-cost but non-free Java runtime because it contaminates our precious bodily fluids. Why is this relevant to an economically rational person?

BD 04/13/04 09:36:06 AM EDT

The big risk is that Sun may become commercially unviable and will do something rash with Java that will make it no longer freely available. If that happened, what would the Fortune 500 and all of the millions of other Java programmers do? What if Sun sold Java to Microsoft? IBM? SCO? So the big risk in using non-free software developed by a commercial company is that the commercial company must remain viable. We "enjoy" a stable Microsoft OS and currently a stable Sun but what of the future? Remember what happened to DEC.

tslate 04/13/04 07:09:12 AM EDT

Oh please. Java''s going to change the world. Gimme a break. JVM''s were around long before SUN, dynamic scripting was around long before Java and the internet is mostly populated by non-J2EE sites. Java is a total disaster on the desktop(JSP and struts not far behind). I started with AWT in ''98. It pure and simply makes embarrassing desktop applications. A JVM does not efficiently utilize the specific OS functionality guaranteed to exist on any given platform, it only works around them. Give me the C compiler on "any" platform over Java "any" day of the week. Java has been oversold, poorly utilized and otherwise screwed up real software engineering. Java is used by those who can''t or won''t deal with the difficult software engineering issues. It''s just an excuse for laziness. I have yet to have users give a damn what you use as long as you solve their problems. Bottom line, the reason that the fall-out has occurred in the software industry is because SUN swelled the ranks with Java and now companies are wising up. It takes twice as long and gives half the results of true OS specific compiler implementations to develop the same products.

A vendor may care to have a program run on multi-platform but most companies want the efficiency of the hardware that they paid for not some VM on steroids. Just when is Java going to take over the world? How about never. Java will go a lot further if everyone tones down the rhetoric.

SUN has to be bailed out by MS to 1.6 billion. Any respect McNealy had is now gone. Sorry guys Java ain''t Seabiscuit.

Timesprout 04/12/04 08:00:00 PM EDT

Where does RMS get off? Java belongs to SUN, they are the one who invested the time, money and effort to develop it. If you dont like it go build your own version rather than trying to imply that SUN are unethical or trying to maliciously entrap developers.

RMS might better ask why Java has been so successful. It addressed a gap in the market, not its original intention but a need none the less and developers like it. There is an extensive Java developer base now. RMS''s comments have a serious smack of petty jealousy about them. Shock horror a commercial company came up with something that has attracted developer mindshare on a far larger scale than anything FOSS can manage and almost 10 years down the line the ''free alternative'' is still so half assed its not even a realistic alternative.

Bill 04/12/04 07:58:23 PM EDT

What you say is mostly correct. Many fortune 500 companies have invested heavily in Java to the point of replacing COBOL with Java. After making that transistion, I don''t think they''ll even consider moving to anything else regardless of the marketing hype. As long as their is a single company supporting Java, it will exist. Now, C# with its tighert control of its enviorment has the potential to dominate areas that Java has not been able to penetrate.. such as the desktop/ client. Java''s not the fastest, easiest, or best to develop interfaces with.
Blessed are those who know how to think for themselves, truth will speak to them.

GetReal 04/12/04 07:57:10 PM EDT

I just wish some posters would wake up and face reality:

Java is a bright success! All fortune 500 companies are using it in one way or the other.
Developers are counted by the millions.
Where is .NET?!?

No go to monster.com and search for job openings and compare Java and C#...

From a marketing perspective:
If you choose Java you have the choice
to sell your product on any major OS.

If you choose C# you just don''t have the choice.
See how far Mono has come. Its not even close
to fulfill the WORA promise Java has.

Opine7 04/12/04 07:55:31 PM EDT

I agree with RMS that Java needs a Free implementation, but I disagree with his assessment of its state of growth.

Java has in exactly the same circumstances that the GNU toolchain was in about 15 years ago... it requires a non-free environment to bootstrap itself. My work and the work of all other Open Source Java developers are helping move the community towards our goal of Freedom.

BlackStar 04/12/04 07:54:14 PM EDT

Wishful thinking is the way Stallman has always approached solutions, and does so in his Java trap article. Getting more software written in Java with a greater demand on the platform and wider popularity is probably the easiest way to get more hackers working on teh GNU Classpath and related projects including the GNU Java Compiler. Computer science builds on itself, and on the work of others, both free and non-free. For years, Stallman''s stuff only ran on Sun, as he pointed out. For years, many of us waited eagerly for the first HURD implementations. Good thing a pragmatist by the name of Torvalds came along and WROTE one rather than endlessly redesigning it. Results breed demand breed developer interest. Cygwin arose at least in part due to Unix programmers working on Windows and wanting the strength of their environment to be there. Demand and need.

DeadSea 04/12/04 07:52:44 PM EDT

RMS has a very valid point. My open source Java software depends on non-free java compiler and runtime environment.
I continue to write free software in java because Java is sexy, and I believe that Java will one day be free (or have some free implementation). Many of the things that I can do in java would be very hard in any other language. Namely having a GUI program that can run on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

I disagree with RMS that we should not accept this even temporarily. I write open source Java libraries under the GPL so that people who find them useful and want to use them must adopt the GPL. Planting open source seeds in the Java community will help in the liberation of the platform as a whole.

jbn-o 04/12/04 07:51:20 PM EDT

Perhaps you should become more familiar with what RMS says and realize that the major underlying justification of the free software movement is its ethical basis; the main questions for a social movement (such as the free software movement) address what kind of world we want to live in and how we should treat each other. I can think of no way to answer that question that forgoes an examination of one''s ethics.

anon 04/12/04 07:49:37 PM EDT

The open source idea does have some interesting possibilities, and while I''m not as fanatical about it as some, I''m certainly prepared to give it a shot if the opportunity arises.

The free software idea has pretty much no demonstrated benefits, other than those that come with open source anyway. It''s a philosophical movement, with whose philosophy I happen to disagree. That''s mainly because my employer makes money from selling good products, significantly ahead of the nearest competition due to investing in good staff who work hard. While that business model seems entirely ethical to me, it would be destroyed instantly by making everything free-as-in-FSF.

LWATDR 04/12/04 07:47:58 PM EDT

RMS claiming that non-free software is unethical is just as bad as Microsoft claiming that free software is unamerican or SCO "claiming all your ?nix belong to us." I have produced free as in beer software, I have produced free as in speech software, and I have produced software that I sell. All of which are ethical. If you want a that does what a program I sell does got and get a c compiler and write it yourself or you can to choose to pay me.

IunT6 04/12/04 07:46:06 PM EDT

Stallman fails to address issues like how to pay the rent with free software, how projects without strong leadership usually fail, and how no successful programming language in recent history has developed without someone controlling what goes in and attempting to keep all implementations compatible

Quill_28 04/12/04 07:42:51 PM EDT

RMS believes selling proprietary software is unethical. I think MS, SUN , and IBM know exactly what it is all about. Love it or hate it the GPL would ruin MS and severely hurt SUN and IBM, along with a whole bunch of other software shops.

DeepDarkSky 04/12/04 07:41:27 PM EDT

C# is not Java, and there are plenty of people loyal to Java who are not willing to switch to C#. But if an official Java version is available on the Windows platform and is blessed by Sun, then developers would be much more willing to use it.

I understand the mantra of Java is write once run anywhere, but if you could at the same time, run on 90% of desktops really well (as a good Microsoft implementation would), then it''s that much better.

All that remains is for Sun to sell Java to Microsoft.

GCP 04/12/04 07:38:51 PM EDT

Microsoft clearly listened to what Java developers were asking for, and what Windows developers were asking for, and they delivered. Perhaps the best way to make my case without a long argument is to point out how "stable" the Java language was until the C# specs were released, and how suddenly the Java language started to evolve again, and what a remarkable coincidence it was that so many of the new Java features just happened to be features of C#.

aQazaQa 04/12/04 07:36:33 PM EDT

The stupidest thing Sun did was force MS to give up Java. MS wanted to make Java ubiquitous by making it the standard platform for writing Windows apps. In order to do this, they needed to add a few features (like delegates -- function pointers, essentially). Sure, people would end up writing "Java" programs that wouldn''t necessarily run on other JVMs, but who cares -- they would be Windows programs anyway! And besides, every single one of those Windows developers would also be a Java developer, spreading Java everywhere.

So now, instead of having a solid, fast, best-of-breed implementation of Java (with a few extras) on every single Windows machine on the planet, everybody who wants to run Java apps must install their own JVM. This does nothing but hinder use of Java. And of course, all of those would-be Java developers are still using VB or have learned C#.

Come to think of it, had Sun incorporated MS''s improvements, such as delegates and enumerations, they would have an excellent language for GUI RAD. Instead, they stuck by their NIH ways and we don''t get these features until 6 years too late.

LibertineR 04/12/04 07:35:02 PM EDT

If Sun had GPL''d Java early on, there would be no .NET today. There would be no need, as Java would have become the de-facto language for Windows applications and Microsoft would have been forced to go along.

Java67 04/12/04 07:32:13 PM EDT

RMS should stop insinuating that commercial/non-free software may be unethical.

The ethics of software are not for RMS to decide.

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