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Ditching the Mozilla Public License for GPL

Although the GPL is considered the most widely used license in open source projects today, plenty of commercial open source projects choose to use a Mozilla Public License (MPL) variant instead.

Open source enterprise content management firm Alfresco used to be one such commercial vendor. But as of today, Alfresco is moving from an MPL license to the GPL.

"The MPL was not an impediment in terms of sales," Matt Asay vp of business development at Alfresco, told internetnews.com. "We've internally been discussing this for the last year and a half and have been inching closer to it."

The fundamental legal difference between the MPL and GPL is that GPL licensed software must always remain free. Generally speaking, any additions made to GPL licensed code need to be contributed back to the community, which is why the GPL is often referred to as a reciprocal license. With the MPL, there is no such stipulation for reciprocity or perpetual openness.

Alfresco was using the MPL with an attribution clause, which means that users needed to identify where the software came from.

"Under our past license with our Web content management product users would have been required to have a powered by Alfresco mark on every single page," Asay explained. "That would be untenable and there wouldn't be that many companies signing up for that."

As is the case with open source database vendor MySQL, Alfresco will provide both a GPL licensed version as well as a commercially licensed version for paying customers. Asay explained that Alfresco didn't want to go with a tri-licensing scheme like the one that Mozilla licenses with its Firefox Web browser. The Mozilla tri-licensing scheme makes Mozilla applications available under the MPL, GPL and the Lesser GPL (LGPL).

"We wanted people to download from us and know exactly what license they were getting it under and not have to think about the license restrictions," Asay said.

Though MPL variants are common in commercial open source vendor applications like those from SugarCRM and Zimbra, Asay argued that the MPL is not as well known as GPL and it takes that much more homework for a person to understand what the license means.

"The GPL powers 72 percent of the projects on Sourceforge.net so it's a shorthand way of telling people what their obligations are under our license," Asay said.

Alfresco is choosing to use the GPL version 2-only clause, as opposed to the GPL version 2 and later clause, for its enterprise content management application. By stating that it is GPL version 2, Alfresco will not automatically become licensed under the GPL version 3 when it becomes available.

That's not to say that Alfresco won't choose the GPL version 3 eventually.

"We don't have any concerns with the current draft of v3 we just wanted to wait and see what it will look like," Asay said. "We don't want to leave it open for a license we can't yet touch and see."

By moving to the GPL, Alfresco also opens itself up to the possibility of a fork emerging from its code. While some firm's would consider a fork a risk, Alfresco sees the potential of a fork as being a net positive.

"We would be ecstatic if someone forked the GPL version of Alfresco because then they get to go off on their fork and develop their own system but we would also benefit from the work that they do," Asay commented. "If we can't compete based on the work that we're doing on our own code as well as benefiting form the work that a fork would do on theirs, then we don't deserve to be in business."

With the GPL in place, Asay's expectation is that Alfresco will be opening itself up to a broader development community that likes and uses the GPL.

"We want the conversation around Alfresco to be much broader than Alfresco the company, we want it to be about the code and the value of the project first and the company secondarily," Asay noted.

In Asay's opinion companies like Red Hat, JBoss and MySQL have succeeded because they had a community around the code first and foremost and then the company came after that. With Alfresco they started off as a commercial enterprise from day one so in some ways they have to work harder to bake community into their project.

"We want a developer to be able to download and say yeah I know there is a company that is doing the bulk of the development work but I also know that they can't take the software from me," Asay said. "I have rights to it and I can do what I want with it so long as I'm willing to abide by the license."

Alfresco was started by content management veterans John Newton, co-founder of commercial ECM vendor Documentum, and John Powell, former COO at Business Objects.