I’ve recently been looking more closely at MySource Matrix, an open source PHP-based CMS. It’s very important to realise that ‘open source’ is not necessarily what you might think in the real world of running an enterprise CMS.
So what about the details of using MySource Matrix in anger? First off, the software is essentially managed by one company, Squiz, based in Australia. It was (as far as I can see) very much developed by them, and while additions and improvements may have been added by people in a user-community over the years, what you get when you download the system is essentially a Squiz product.
Then there’s the dual licence. This basically means that you can download the software, install it on your laptop or server or whatever (as I did) and start playing around with it. This comes under a GPL licence, and you’re free to do whatever you want with it. Squiz have even kindly released hundreds of pages of documentation on how to use the system.
But you’d have to be a brave soul to do this for anything other than your department’s website, etc. Imagine your university or large corporation wanted a CMS, and you offer them something for which you have no training, and only a superficial idea of the mechanisms behind it because you can only spend 50% of your time on it? Would you really want to be to blame for that disaster-in-waiting?
And I think this is exactly what Squiz have realised, and exactly why they have a dual licence. That is, if you want something a bit shinier, more bells and whistles, proper training, proper support… well, really you need their SSV (Squiz Supported Version) licence. This is where things seem to change somewhat.
The SSV bit
Once you enter SSV territory, you seem to agree that in essence everything you have is owned by Squiz. Moreover, you must tell Squiz about any changes you make to the code, and those changes aren’t yours. They belong to Squiz. This may scare some, and horrify true blue open source devotees. I should point out that it appears that, according to this page, that you can actually opt to limit your obligation to Squiz (for a fee). You can even opt to resell your own changes commercially, although I’d imagine this option demands an even bigger fee.
In any case, I wonder, is it really so terrible not to be able to modify the code, and still retain ownership of those changes? Would you really want to make any changes to a complex and well-supported system? About a year ago I had to tinker with phpBB to make it work in the way we wanted. Great. But now we have a system which would be hard to update if there were any new security patches. I also remember going to a Plone talk once, at which some developers proudly demonstrated how brilliant Plone could be. The only caveat was that it had taken them years of expert development to get to that point, and their version of Plone was so wildly different from the out-the-box version that updates were a significant problem.
As far as I’m concerned, Squiz’s dual licence is sort of open source. It isn’t true open source, but really I don’t care. The main thing is that it’s much much cheaper to get hold of than other CMS vendors (ie no up front licence fee of £80k), and you can see all the code and work out what’s going on.
OK, changing that code and retaining ownership of the changes is another thing, but maybe you really need to be looking at your motives for getting a CMS. If it’s to get: a system which works, which users like, is easy to maintain, has good support, and doesn’t cost too much… well then something like this Squiz’s licence and MySource Matrix might seem like a good idea.
But if you want to spend the next few years tinkering and playing and developing your own modules, and at the end of this process you want to claim the changes as your own… well, maybe this licence scheme isn’t for you.
Squiz have developed what looks like a good CMS. They provide the software for free, but make their money out of support, design, and training. They also develop a number of extra modules, which they sell to non-educational and non-governmental clients.
But just because the software is free, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s truly open source. Their SSV licence (essential if you want to use the system to its full potential and do serious stuff with it) means Squiz end up owning any changes you might make. I’m no lawyer, but it even seems like any modules you might develop end up being theirs too.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, at least if you feel it’s unlikely that you’d do a massive amount of development yourself. And it’s important to know that any changes you do make end up being incorporated into the product, so other Matrix users benefit. I also get the impression that many new bits of code are developed by users with collaboration from Squiz. So overall it seems like a collaborative situation where everyone gains from the development of a new requirement: Squiz make more money, and users end up with a better CMS. Is this bad? I don’t think so.