User pressure leads SugarCRM to adopt GPLv3

Company decision a sign of wider debate in open source community over legitimacy of licenses and businesses not approved by Open Source Initiative

SugarCRM is to adopt version 3 of the GNU general public license (GPLv3) for the next release of its open source CRM software after coming under pressure from its user community to move away from its own Sugar Public License.

Sugar Community Edition 5.0, the open source version of the SugarCRM software, due out in September, will be licensed under GPLv3, the vendor announced Wednesday. GPLv3 debuted at the end of June.

"We just think it's a great license," said John Roberts, SugarCRM CEO and co-founder. "It's more copyleft, more liberal, and less restrictive than our current license." He added that when the beta version of Sugar Community Edition 5.0 ships within two weeks, it will be licensed under GPLv3.

A recent thread on SugarCRM's general discussion open source forum was entitled "Why the Sugar license is mad, bad, and may be dangerous." It's part of a wider debate currently raging in the open source community as to whether companies using licenses that haven't been approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) can really call themselves open source companies.

There's concern that companies using non-OSI approved licenses could act contrary to the interests of the open source community and behave like proprietary software vendors while continuing to refer to themselves as open source entities.

The OSI is a nonprofit consortium that acts as an education and advocacy group as well as a standards body determining what is and isn't open source. It has given its seal of approval in the form of the OSI Approved License to more than 50 open source licenses, including the GPL as well as Apache Software License, Sun Microsystems' Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) Eclipse Public License, IBM Public License, Intel Open Source License, and Mozilla Public License.

The GPL gives users the right to freely study, copy, modify, reuse, share, and redistribute software. Created by Richard Stallman in 1989 for the GNU free operating system project, the license, popular among free and open source software (FOSS) developers, was last fully revised 16 years ago as GPLv2.

The license was rewritten to reflect emerging issues. A third draft of GPLv3 was delayed until January to ensure that it dealt with the potential ramifications of a patent-licensing deal around Suse Linux struck between Novell and Microsoft in November. Parts of the Linux operating system including its kernel are licensed under GPLv2.

When SugarCRM was established three and a half years ago, Roberts said the company saw the Mozilla Public License (MPL) as best representing the ideals of the open source CRM project. SPL is a derivation of MPL. "We stayed our course because we believed it was fair and just," he added.

Over the past year and a half, SugarCRM has been working with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and participating with the organization in the development of GPLv3. "We felt MPL was a better license at the beginning," Roberts said. "GPL is a better license for the long term."

"The reason why we're making the announcement now is that we're nearing the end of the longest engineering cycle we've had in our history," Roberts said, noting that the last major release of Sugar Community Edition, version 4.5, shipped over a year ago. "If we were going to change the license, now is the time to do it." He added that the response to the decision from SugarCRM users has been extremely positive. "It's nice to adopt a stronger, superior license and get very positive feedback," Roberts said. "It's a good day."

Roberts described SugarCRM's licensing issues and run-ins with the OSI as "a very long and complicated story," which is now over. "I prefer to look ahead than behind," he said. Roberts welcomed OSI's recent decision to include attribution in open source licenses. "In the end we landed in a really good spot for OSI, FSF and open source software."

He sees the FOSS movement as getting stronger and becoming more mainstream technology. "Open source has actually become a threat to proprietary established software companies who'll fight as hard as they can to defend their turf," Roberts said. "They'll use patents as offensive weapons, and it's good the FSF is pushing back against that." To his mind, open source remains "a work in progress," but it's one where the organizations and the processes are getting better, he said.

SugarCRM currently employs more than 120 staff and has more than 1,300 paying customers for its software, according to Roberts.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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