Open-source Alfresco shifts to GPL

Document management company hopes license change will mean more outside programmer involvement.

Alfresco, a start-up that commercializes open-source software for helping customers keep track of their digital documents, has adopted the General Public License in an effort to attract outside programmers.

The company's free previously used the Mozilla Public License, but the move to GPL removes some barriers, said Matt Asay, Alfresco's vice president of marketing. The company's supported and certified Enterprise edition remains available under a commercial license.

"We wanted the code to be bigger than the company," Asay said. "People basically know what (the GPL) means, so there's no time wasted wondering (about) MPL."

In addition, Alfresco will be able to easily integrate with other GPL projects, such as the Drupal content management software, Asay said.

The move makes sense, said 451 Group analyst Raven Zachary. "Alfresco's use of the GPL license for its Community Edition allows for potentially greater community contributions due to license familiarity and established standards," he said. At the same time, Alfresco can continue "to focus on growing its Enterprise Edition business under a commercial license."

Asay trumpets that growth. The company, which competes with EMC's Documentum among others, is on track for 2007 revenue to quadruple over 2006 levels, he said. And he expects the company to become profitable "shortly."

Alfresco's license comes at an interesting time, when the Free Software Foundation is working on version 3 of the GPL. Some--notably the core programmers behind the Linux kernel--are opposed to changes that appeared in the first two drafts, but Asay likes the direction.

"We'd really like to go version 3 when it comes out, if it remains as planned," he said. Until then, though, the software remains only under GPL 2.

However, the company did add to the GPL license a "FLOSS exception" provision that permits the software to be embedded in other FLOSS (free/libre/open-source software) packages. With the exception, those other projects don't have to worry about a potential requirement to release their own software under the GPL, Asay said.

Open-source licenses govern particulars such as the circumstances under which the software's underlying code must be shared, and how it may be intermingled with other open-source or proprietary software.

License changes are not unknown in the open-source realm, but a new license is no guarantee of more programmer interest. There are vibrant programming communities under several open-source licenses.

Asay acknowledged that there's more to building a rich community than picking a palatable license. "I don't think a license change is a panacea, by any stretch," he said.

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