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The death of dual-licensing as a commercial open source strategy

May 15, 2009

We are witnessing an interesting development: an alliance is being formed to execute a hostile take-over of a successful open source project. Yes, I am talking about MySQL. From the press release:

"Our goal with the Open Database Alliance is to provide a central clearinghouse for MySQL development, to encourage a true open development environment with community participation, and to ensure that MySQL code remains extremely high quality," noted Monty. "Participating members at this stage in the 'Alliance' will have a strong voice in how the organization is structured, and we look forward to collaborating with anyone in the industry that provides or depends on MySQL."

Dual-licensing has been a favourite commercial open source strategy for many, but what we are seeing now may be signalling the end of its popularity. The conventional wisdom, until now, was that people would not fork an open source project for as long its (commercial) owner did a decent job at maintaining it. Now we see that, once a project reaches a certain level of popularity, and the right mix of commercial and personal interests exists, the fork happens anyway. The community takes over, abandoning the project's commercial "host" and moving the code into a new phase of development.

One must not forget, on the other hand, that this is not the first time MySQL had been forked, but that you did not hear about those other forks simply because they were small in scope and generally uninteresting to a wider audience. They did not endanger the project. This time, with one of MySQL's founders participating in the forking effort, there is a real possibility that the fork starts to be perceived as the main development branch.