Activiti BPM project questions value of LGPL GNU license

Alfresco, SpringSource, Signavio, and Camunda collaboration born out of ISV weariness of GNU Lesser General Public License

Alfresco, SpringSource, Signavio, and Camunda have launched an open source project under the permissive Apache 2.0 license, spawned mainly by prospective Alfresco OEM partners' weariness of GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) software.

Alfresco announced the Activiti Business Process Management initiative, which the sponsoring vendors hope will become a top-line project, at the Apache Software Foundation.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Developers are wondering whether GPL still matters | Keep up on the current open source news and insights with InfoWorld's Technology: Open source newsletter. ]

A few months ago when Alfresco announced a shift in licensing of Alfresco Community to the LGPL, Alfresco CTO John Newton wrote:

We have considered more liberal licenses as well, but we currently have two main LGPL components -- Hibernate for database access and JBPM for workflow -- which prevent us from going to something like Apache or BSD licenses. However, this is something we may consider changing in the future.

It seems Alfresco is attempting to address the LGPL components within its product, with the goal of shifting to a permissive license such as the Apache 2.0 license. To that end, Newton writes:

Activiti emerged from our desire to have an Apache-licensed BPM engine. Although we were quite happy with the (RedHat JBoss) jBPM engine, it's LGPL license was preventing us from OEMing Alfresco to larger software companies that were concerned about any open source license with the letter G in it. It's irrelevant that they shouldn't be concerned about it...

Newton alludes to Red Hat's unwillingness to change the jBPM license from LGPL to a more permissive standard:

It's understandable that RedHat did not want to change its license, but our business needs dictated that we needed to find an alternative.

Red Hat's reluctance to change the jBPM product license could be due to jBPM components from third parties whose license Red Hat would not be able to alter.

It's interesting to note that Hibernate, the other LGPL component used by Alfresco, is also owned by Red Hat. It stands to reason that Alfresco will move to an Apache 2.0-licensed alternative to Hibernate such as Apache OpenJPA.

As Newton states, one can definitely understand Red Hat's reluctance to change the license. However, one has to wonder if Red Hat could expand the applicability of its middleware portfolio with a more permissive license. On one hand, the JBoss Application Server, an LGPL-licensed product, has garnered strong downloads and continues to grow revenue at a faster pace than Red Hat's Linux business. It would seem that the LGPL hasn't been a hindrance to JBoss Application Server adoption.

On the other hand, as Newton points out, some ISVs and -- as I've heard -- customers are concerned about viral licenses. Though the LGPL was created to specifically address the viral nature of the GPL, some ISVs and customers remain weary.

In Alfresco's case, the business need for a permissive licensed BPM component was so high that it's willing to make Activiti 1.0 the default BPM engine for Alfresco by the end of 2010, displacing a more mature 4.x jBPM product. While a 1.0 release isn't always bad, most people in the software industry will argue that product quality and functionality improves with releases.

In an interesting twist, the original project founders of jBPM, who left Red Hat two months ago, have joined Alfresco to design and develop Activiti. It's unclear whether the license terms for jBPM played any role in their departure from Red Hat. It is, however, important to note that Activiti wouldn't be getting the attention it is if not for Alfresco's backing -- and Alfresco wouldn't be backing Activiti if jBPM were available under a permissive license.

Does the LGPL provide your company sufficient freedoms, or is a more permissive license a requirement before making open source selection decisions?

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions."

This article, "Activiti BPM project questions value of GNU license," was originally published at Read more of Rodrigues et al.'s Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.