Every License has its Time and Place

You may have noticed the recent discussion about which open source license a single-vendor commercial open source firm should choose for its community offering. In this blog post I’ll argue that this choice depends on the state and speed of the firm.

Underlying the “which license?” discussion is the assumption of a dual (or multiple) license strategy, in which the free community edition of the project is available under an open source license, while the vendor is selling an enterprise edition under a commercial license. A good read for this strategy is Mike Olson’s account of it. Of course you may also like my summary.

The classic choice for the community license has been the GPL. The GPL supports building a community of users and customers while stalling competitors through its reciprocal nature, as Savio Rodriguez (and many others) observes. How is that? Because of its reciprocal nature, no potential competitor could take the project and create a competing version without having to contribute back any enhancements to the community. Thus, no chance of creating a sustainable competitive advantage over someone else. The only 800 pound gorilla will be the original creator of the project who has to make sure it maintains the relicensing rights (to its version). Practice so far has borne out that this works.

The choice of GPL for the community license has now come under fire. Eric Raymond calls it “an admission of weakness” and Matt Asay argues that the Apache license creates more openness and hence more opportunity.

I think the “GPL vs Apache” discussion is a red herring. It is a good discussion though, as it keeps clarifying thoughts, and it is good to see that we can have a sound and reasoned discussion. The arguments as I see them are:

  • Both licenses help create a community.
  • The more permissive Apache license increases the risk of a competitor ripping you off.
  • At the same time the Apache license helps you build that coveted community faster, cheaper, better.

To me then, the choice of a license becomes a function of the stage, state, and speed the single-vendor commercial open source firm is in.

  • Is the firm young and early? Inexperienced and just starting out? A bunch of guys and gals in a garage? At this stage in a startup’s life the firm may want to go for the extra protection that the GPL offers. Raymond may call it a sign of weakness, but then, it’s true, and the firm would be foolish not to acknowledge this.
  • Does the firm have reasonable funds? A brand and website and alliances that help it get recognized and that drive traffic? Is it confident it can compete on innovation around its own product? Then the firm may be ready to swim with the sharks and switch to Apache. The more permissive license lets you take up more speed and grow your community faster.

While every firm is different, my best guess is that a single vendor open source firm should start out with the GPL and switch over to Apache when it thinks it can take the extra heat.

One thought on “Every License has its Time and Place

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