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Latest MySQL Fails to Quiet Licensing Critics

Open Source database vendor MySQL AB released its latest incremental release last week (version 4.0.20), but according to some in the community, it still doesn't address what some say serious licensing concerns.

The licensing issue prevents it from being included in some Linux distributions and working together, from a licensing perspective, with PHP. Last week, Red Hat's community Fedora Project released Fedora Core 2 and for all of its updated and improved packages, it had one notable omission: the 4.x version of MySQL.

"Currently, MySQL is not included in Fedora Core 2 due to conflicts with the MySQL licensing scheme," Fedora Project volunteer Jack Aboutboul told internetnews.com. "The change in licensing from LGPL to GPL now prohibits inclusion of MySQL code in any software that is not explicitly licensed under the GPL, such as PHP."

MySQL AB changed the license on some of its included software libraries from the less restrictive LGPL to GPL last year. One of the fundamental differences between the two licenses is that with the LGPL, non-GPL or proprietary software may be tightly linked with it, which is not the case with GPL licensed software. MySQL came up with something called the FOSS licensing exception in March, which was supposed to alleviate the problem.

One of the programs that was most strongly affected by MySQL's licensing shift is the PHP open source programming language, and part of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) acronym that dominates much of open source development.

In an e-mail interview with PHP and Zend co-founders Andi Gutmans and Zeev Suraski said they still have concerns with MySQL's licensing. "From a strict legal standpoint, the MySQL FOSS still does not solve all of the problems with the new MySQL licensing," Gutmans said.

The PHP founders acknowledged that MySQL's FOSS exception lists most of the open source licenses in use today. However, they claim, it still poses a significant issue for certain applications.

"Effectively, the FOSS prevents people from using closed-source software in conjunction with the MySQL client library, without purchasing a license," Gutmans explained. "While it might sound reasonable at first, effectively, this is a very odd clause that, if taken seriously by MySQL (the company), poses a serious limitation on the ability of users to develop and distribute MySQL based applications."

The two cited numerous examples where an environment has MySQL and and PHP that may be linked to other third party closed libraries like Java VM or an Oracle Server.

According to Gutmans, "PHP's tolerance to closed-source software is, at least theoretically, impaired by the complete lack of tolerance for closed-source software of the MySQL client library, even when one has nothing to do with the other."

They do not believe that the MySQL licensing shift was an intentional ruse to collect money from true open source users of the software.

"Our understanding is that they're trying to make sure that the ones who are really selling MySQL-based applications have to pay," Gutmans said. "However, the way the FOSS is phrased right now, even common people that don't want to sell MySQL or anything similar can be hurt."

Suraski and Gutmans said they had discussed the issue with the MySQL team and they are aware of the issue and are continuing to try and fix the problem. In their view, MySQL AB wants to fix the problem, "but they still haven't managed to reach a consensus with their lawyers on how to fix it without taking a risk."

Developers need not shy away from MySQL in light of this situation according to the PHP founders, especially since in their view the issues are unintentional.

"But developers who don't feel comfortable with the FOSS the way it is now definitely have the option of using another solution, be it PostgreSQL or something else," Gutmans said.

PostgreSQL may, in fact, be a beneficiary of MySQL's licensing issues, at least if you believe the PostgreSQL people. According to Josh Berkus, a member of the PostgreSQL core team, based on 'anecdotal evidence' there has been an increase in PostgreSQL downloads since the licensing issue emerged. However, Berkus admits that he can't prove it with hard numbers.

"Since our downloads are heavily mirrored, and our last new version coincided with the MySQL licensing problems, it's a little hard to prove it empirically," Berkus said. "I will say, officially, that PostgreSQL is BSD-licensed, we have always been BSD-licensed, and nobody has ever been compelled to pay a single penny for a 'commercial license' from us. Many people and companies turn to PostgreSQL in order to achieve complete freedom from licensing hassles."

Fedora Project community spokesperson Jack Aboutboul won't be switching to PostgresSQL. "At this time, migration to Postgres is unnecessary," he said. "Users can continue to use MySQL 3.x, and hopefully by FC3, this issue will be resolved. In a sentence, it's not that we don't want to include MySQL, it's just that nothing was released using the license exception that's usable to us."

Not all Linux distributions have the same opinion on the issue. The latest release of Novell SUSE, version 9.1, includes MySQL 4.x.

The Swedish-based MySQL is usually touted as being an open source success story with it dual licensing scheme that allows it be open source as well as a commercial product. At a recent users conference in Orlando (), MySQL AB unveiled its latest technological innovation: a clustering version intended to significantly improve database availability and performance.