Open Source Portal Servers and GPL

July 17, 2005 – 23:28 | java

Recently I have been playing around with some of the most popular open source portal servers out there (see previous entries). Two of them are eXo Platform™ and Stringbeans™ Portal. Both are interesting products from technical perspective, but both have one common thing that kind of turned me off – the GPL license. I can’t help but wondering what the implications are when a whole web application (in this case being a portal server) is licensed under GPL. While both products are well round-up, and ready for use out of box, I can hardly imagine not to change anything before it can fit into my requirements. For a starter, how about some CSS twisting? or layout shifting? or maybe just changing some logo and button images? If the GPL covers the entire application, does it mean I have to license the customized version under GPL as well and make all those changes publicly available (short of purchasing the commercial license of course, but obviously that’s not the point here)?

After reading through the license sections from both web sites, I guess it comes down to the same old question people have been asking about GPL – what does “distribute” mean? Does deploying a customized version within my organization become “distributing”? It seems so, because, for example, Stringbeans’ License Section specifically elaborates (I made “internally” bold):

As long as you do not distribute (internally or externally) the Stringbeans portal software in any way, you are free to use it for building your application, irrespective of whether your application is under GPL license or not.

eXo Platform’s License Section has something similar:

In all other cases you must purchase the commercial non-GPL license.
1. Your application is non licensed under the GPL license and you intend to distribute the eXo platform™ internally or externally.
2. You use the eXo platform™ within your organisation and do not want to risk it falling under the GPL license.

What do you think? I want to hear your thoughts or past experiences in similar scenarios, i.e., any web applications licensed under GPL.

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  1. 4 Responses to “Open Source Portal Servers and GPL”

  2. MySQL and its JDBC and ODBC drivers are already covered by the same GPL license, so if you use MySQL, you are already in this situation. At one point, MySQL AB claimed that if you created a web product which stored its data in MySQL, and chose not to buy a commercial MySQL license, your web product would be covered by GPL. This has made me stay away from MySQL, even if their claim is pure nonsense – I don’t want to have anything to do with people who purposefully misrepresent things like that.

    By Anothermike on Jul 18, 2005

  3. “Distributed internally” typically is considered to mean “distributed across legal entity bounds within a conglomerate business”. For example, many firms’ international offices are actually legally separate entities (e.g., Foo, Inc. in the US might have a legal entity of Foo, Ltd. that operates in the UK). Sending the other legal entity a modified copy of the GPL’d code would trigger the “distribution” clause.

    Note that merely visiting a Web site powered by GPL’d software does not trigger the “distribution” clause. In that case, the Web pages received by the requesting browser are considered output of the GPL’d program and, in most cases, such output is not itself intrinsically GPL’d. Example: programs compiled with gcc are not automatically put under the GPL simply because the gcc compiler is GPL’d.

    By Mark Murphy on Jul 18, 2005

  4. It is clear to me from this article you do not understand the GPL license.

    If you use an internal version or run a service you are not required to release any of the code you change.
    If you distribute the system – e.g. give it to your customers (as code, compiled or not, not as a service you run) then you are required to make available the changes.

    As a developer of software I want you to be able to modify however you like. 90% of code used in open source is modified and used internally anyway, and GPL covers that nicely. Then there is those who would like to sell the product that I have spent lots of time on, by making lots of improvements to the code and not contributing that back to me or the community – that is NOT ON ! The GPL proects just that.

    The GPL does not fit everything though. For example, in my code I have often released the templates, graphics, css etc as either a Creative Commons or in one case even Public Domain – loosing all control of it. This is indeed on purpose to allow people like you to sell new designs and templates – but still used on the internal system originally developed for. When I do libraries I tend to use LGPL – in those cases I am interested in people using and contributing to the library, but by all means write commercial applications that use those libraries. Ala non-viral nature.

    The one thing I would not allow with my own code, is taking the code, changing it and keeping those changes secret – blocking your customers, the authors of the code and the community from the benefits which they provided to this new party in the first place. That would be most unfair.

    A web application is ideally suited to GPL. A library is better as LGPL. A lower end daemon might be suited better to BSD. A template, CSS etc may better be released under LGPL, Creative Commons or Public Domain. And content sits best either completely copyright, limited license, or better yet under Creative Commons.


    By Scott on Jul 27, 2006

  5. Scott, not that you are wrong on saying I don’t understand GPL – I admit I still can’t say I do – but it seems that your comment, particularly the part regarding the templates and CSS, somewhat echoes the question I raised in the blog. That is, is GPL the most suitable for the “volatile” part, or the more content-oriented portion of a web application? And what is the implication of licensing an entire application under GPL?
    Thanks for the comment.

    By Jing Xue on Jul 31, 2006

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