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MySQL has a long history as a core component of the free software stack, and has been available under a dual GPL or proprietary licence since 2002.

Dual licensing allows the owner of the code to release the code under both free and proprietary licences. A concise exposition of MySQL's dual licensing strategy is outlined in the letter signed by Richard Stallman and submitted to the European Commission in opposition to the takeover of MySQL by Oracle in 2009:

"MySQL is made available to the public in two parallel ways. Most users obtain it as free/libre software under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2; the code is released in this way gratis. MySQL is also available under a different, proprietary license for a fee."

"This approach was able to provide (1) an attractive platform for developers looking to use FLOSS, and secured MySQL enormous mind share, particularly in supporting content rich web pages and other Internet applications, and (2) the ability for paying clientèle to combine and distribute MySQL in customizations that they do not want to make available to the public as free/libre software under the GPL. With excellent management and considerable trust within the user community, MySQL became the gold standard for web based FLOSS database applications."

The success of MySQL owed everything to its availability as free software, which gave it visibility and market share. The claim was that the proprietary version of MySQL, which was identical to the free software version, could be added to proprietary embedded products without the manufacturers having to fulfil any obligation to release changes back to the community, and that this gave MySQL AB a commercial advantage.

Josh Berkus tells it differently, and claims that MySQL AB owed the main part of its revenue to the traditional mechanisms for selling open source, which are subscription, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance.

"MySQL AB made the majority of its direct income from support contracts rather than from licensing. While these were termed 'subscriptions' and supposedly came with commercially licensed add-ons, customers were clear that what they wanted and were buying was MySQL's fanatical support team, not any of the proprietary add-ons, most of which were inferior to open source alternatives."

Two letters of difference

The problems with MySQL's bipolar approach to licensing came to the fore when MySQL AB was purchased by a third party. At the time of Sun's acquisition, Greg Sabino Mullane, a contributor to PostgreSQL, made the distinction that MySQL was an open source product and PostgreSQL is an open source project.

"Only two letters of difference between 'product' and 'project', but a very important distinction", he wrote. "MySQL is run by a for-profit corporation (MySQL AB), which owns the code, employs practically all the developers, dictates what direction the software goes in, and has the right to change (indeed, has changed) the licensing terms for use of the software (and documentation)."

"By contrast, Postgres is not owned by any one company, is controlled by the community, has no licensing issues, and has its main developers spread across a wide spectrum of companies, both public and private. Can a software product succeed using such a system? Well, the other letters in the original LAMP (Linux, Apache, and Perl) have similar models, and they seem to be doing just fine. Like Postgres, there is no way to 'buy' any of those projects either."

Such distinctions are important. Whether the licence is copyleft or permissive, a project that is a distinct entity and is "owned" by no-one, is more attractive to developers and less vulnerable to splits and divisions than a product which is controlled by a single company. And when the code for a project is "owned" by a single company, other companies are less likely to step forward and make contributions of their own.

Josh Berkus also made the point that "several companies, including CommandPrompt, EnterpriseDB and SRA have tried to make businesses out of commercially re-licensed versions of PostgreSQL. However, all of them today have switched to revenue models based on services and enterprise add-ons because those models are more successful."

The dual licensing model may be less effective as a business model than its advocates, including Stallman, have suggested.

Next: Duality of purpose

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