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Mozilla open source license set for facelift

10-year-old shows her age

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Mozilla is updating its open source license after more than 10 years of use.

On Wednesday, at a new site dedicated to the license overhaul, the Foundation announced that it's now gathering update suggestions from world+dog and that it hopes to release a completed document by October or November.

The Mozilla Public License was originally developed at Netscape by current Mozilla head Mitchell Baker, and the Foundation has used version 1.1 with apps like Firefox and Thunderbird for more than a decade. Version 1.1 has also been used with various other projects, including Sun's OpenSolaris and Adobe's Flex.

"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," reads today's announcement from Mozilla.

"Keeping both those things in mind, Mozilla is launching a process to update the license, hoping to modernize and simplify it while still keeping the things that have made the license and the Mozilla project such a success."

The organization does not intend to make major changes to the license. Naturally, it will remain "free and open," and it will retain its copyleft requirements. Mozilla has already been in touch with the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative in an effort to ensure that any updates match up with their policies and principles. Both have approved the current MPL.

Code licensed under the current MPL can be copied and modified as long as it's then redistributed under the MPL, and you can mix MPL code with proprietary code to form a single executable. But the MPL is not compatible with the GNU GPL license. You can't combine MPL code and GPL code in the same binary - unless the MPL code is also licensed under the GPL.

The Foundation will "seriously investigate" whether it can make the MPL compatible with the Apache license, hoping to "help projects using the MPL become more flexible about using Apache-licensed code." Unlike the MPL, the Apache license has no copyleft requirements. You can modify and reuse code without giving back to the community.

But again: Mozilla will not change from copyleft to no copyleft. "The Mozilla community includes some people who are strongly drawn to each of these options, and for whom living exclusively with the other option would be surprising and difficult," the Foundation says. "As a result, adopting either of these options exclusively is likely to be highly disruptive. The current file-level copyleft allows all of us to work together, which is a better outcome and a net positive for the Mozilla community."

Mozilla also wants to make the license "more appropriate" for users outside the US, while working to "templatize" the license and taking other steps to reduce license proliferation. And it hopes to update the license's definitions of source and executable code "for modern development practices," including interpreted languages and binary modification.

The Foundation will post a list of additional areas of investigation in the coming days, and netizens can leave comments on the current MPL here.

The MPL update will not address the software-as-service issue. "This is a sensitive and complicated issue. We will likely examine it in more depth in the near future, but we are not planning to address it as part of this process because we don’t want controversy over that issue to get in the way of the basic work of updating the MPL." ®

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