Mozilla to overhaul its open-source license

The Firefox backer wants to modernize and simplify the Mozilla Public License and sets an ambitious November deadline.

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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

Ten years on, Mozilla has concluded that its open-source underpinnings are due for a refresh.

The Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail software are governed by the Mozilla Public License, which determines what rights and restrictions apply to programmers who want to use the software in their own projects, extend it in various ways, or just peek at the programming instructions that underlie the software.

"Version 1.1 of the Mozilla Public License has been in use by Mozilla and other projects for over a decade. The spirit of the license has served us well by helping to communicate some of the values that underpin our large and growing community. However, some of its wording may be showing its age," Mozilla said in an announcement of the license refurbishing Wednesday.

The license, broadly speaking, lets people modify software governed by the MPL as long as the source code of the modifications is shared under the same license. However, it also permits companies or others to distribute binary versions of the software--the kind that computers run directly--that mingles MPL code with their own proprietary software.

As is fitting for an open-source license, Mozilla is seeking outside comment on what needs to be done. And on what's probably an ambitious schedule, given how hard it was to develop version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3), Mozilla hopes to finish it in October or November.

The license will continue to meet the Free Software Foundation's definition of free (as in freedom) and the Open Source Initiative's definition of open source, but will be simplified, according to the scope document.

More meaty is the investigation into, though not commitment to, these changes. Mozilla said:

• Becoming Apache [License] compatible, both in our patent terms and more broadly, to help projects using the MPL become more flexible about using Apache-licensed code.

• The impact of our patent license grant (particularly section 8.2) to reflect modern licensing practice.

• Globalizing the license, to make it more appropriate for our global community of contributors.

• Templatizing the license, and taking other appropriate steps to reduce license proliferation, including working with the authors of other license derivatives.

• Updating the Source/Executable distinction for modern development practices, including interpreted languages, binary modification, and non-code users.

It's not the first attempt to reform the MPL. Sun Microsystems used the license as the basis for its Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL), a move that imposed a barrier between Linux and Sun's Solaris, but suggested a handful of changes that Mozilla didn't adopt.

Compatibility with Apache is notable, too. The Apache License is widely in the open-source realm, and compatibility would ease code sharing among projects governed by it and the MPL.

Mozilla Chairman Mitchell Baker leads the effort, with help from Harvey Anderson, Luis Villa, and Gerv Markham, according to the FAQ.