Oracle sets its own JDK free, sort of, for a while

Welcome to the No-Fee Terms and Conditions, which makes the Java dev kit a bit more appealing


Analysis Oracle this week made Oracle JDK "available for free," for personal, commercial and production use, including quarterly security updates, for a limited time.

"Free" in this context means the software is now licensed under the Oracle No-Fee Terms and Conditions (NFTC) license, having been previously under the Oracle Technology Network (OTN) License Agreement for Oracle Java SE.

But "free" does not mean developers may do as they please. Oracle's NFTC forbids redistribution of its Java software for a fee.

"Free" also does not mean the NFTC license conforms with the Free Software Definition or the Open Source Definition, both of which require allowing fee-based distribution.

"Even though it is 'free to use' – although not really totally free to use, since commercial use isn't free to use – that is extremely different from Free Software and Open Source," said Jim Jagielski, an open source veteran who helped co-found the Apache Software Foundation and now oversees open source at Salesforce.

"It is still a proprietary implementation, and although you are allowed to use it, you get none of the other freedoms normally associated with open source. When truly free/open source alternatives exist, what exactly is the incentive to use Oracle's version?"

In a blog post, Donald Smith, senior director of product management at Oracle, described the license shift as a response to feedback after the Oracle OpenJDK was put under the GPL and customers said they "wanted the trusted, rock-solid Oracle JDK under an unambiguously free terms license, too."

Java microservice, photo via Shutterstock

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OpenJDK is open source, under the JDK Project, and serves as a reference implementation for Oracle's commercially-oriented Java Platform, Standard Edition Development Kit (JDK). The Oracle JDK, which just reached version 17, is similar to the OpenJDK but not identical. The Oracle JDK includes various optional features and components like installers that may require payment.

The NFTC license has a limited lifespan. "LTS [Long-Term Support] releases, such as JDK 17, will receive updates under this license for one year after the release of the subsequent LTS," Oracle explains in its FAQs. "After the free use license period, Oracle intends to use the OTN License, the same currently used for Java 8 and 11 LTS releases, for subsequent updates."

With JDK 21 (LTS) due in September 2023, that means JDK 17 (LTS) users will see their NFTC license revert to Oracle's OTN license in September 2024. For non-LTS releases like JDK 18, the license reversion will occur just six months after the release of a successor version. Given Java's release cadence, non-LTS releases will see license reversion after one year.

The salient difference between the NFTC and the OTN is that the OTN disallows commercial usage.

Kevin Morrin, VP of service delivery for SLC, a consultancy for customers dealing with Oracle licensing, told The Register in a phone interview that the licensing change is significant for Oracle customers.

"This is a departure," he said. "It allows people to download and use Java in organizations. It can be put into production. That's an important nuance."

But he said while clients get free entry under the NFTC license, they still have to think about whether they will maintain it once they have to pay for support, or whether they will shift to the latest version to maintain the free terms.

Asked whether Oracle expects enterprise customers, traditionally slow to update, will remain on specific Java versions long enough for payment to come into play, Morrin said that's possible.

"Most clients wait at least a year before upgrading," he said. "There are very few early adopters among the clients we surveyed."

Oracle, he suggested, might be using the new license as a carrot to entice more customers to shift to the cloud.

Morrin also suggested the licensing shift could be a response to rivals like Amazon, Microsoft, and RedHat that have their own JDKs. "I see clients standardizing on ones that aren't charging them money," he said.

I see clients standardizing on JDKs that aren't charging them money

Ultimately, he said, Oracle customers should consider their options carefully. "There's no one at Oracle who's incented to save you money," he said.

Paul Berg, an Idaho-based software licensing consultant who has worked for Amazon and Microsoft, told The Register in an email that Oracle's motives for the licensing change may have something to do with patent licensing.

"Most likely Oracle is under a patent cross licensing agreement, most likely with Microsoft and IBM among others," he mused. "The full rights to use these third party patents under the cross licensing agreement that Oracle likely enjoys, likely does not allow them full redistributable rights to those patent licenses, particularly when a recipient of the JDK may redistribute themselves.

"Oracle may not be comfortable that they can legally distribute identified third party patent implementations under the GPLv2 without annoying their cross licensing partners. So that could be a reason to withhold useful code from the OpenJDK that is in this proprietary version.

"A more selfish reason could be that Oracle does not want to license their own patents in the JDK under the GPLv2, as that would diminish the value of their portfolio. This is, of course, complete speculation on my part, but it would be a very common industry reason for this behavior."

The Register asked Oracle whether there's anything to this speculation. We'll update this story if Oracle chooses to respond. ®

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