I’m pretty frustrated by some of the discussion around the recent relicensing decisions by commercial open source companies. A fair bit of it seems confused to me, and I think this is mostly due to commentators not understanding the purpose of community for the vendor. So I decided to write a hypothetical pledge for venture-capital backed companies that those can adopt to be clear about their intentions. Then, future behavior doesn’t come as a surprise. Non VC-backed companies may want to tone down the return-on-investment verbiage. With that:
This commercial entity exists to [build and sell a product long-term]. It intends to earn as large a return on investment for its shareholders as is possible. To that end, it seeks to be the single vendor benefiting from its products.
- Users will always be allowed to use some or all of the software for free under a license of our choosing, as long as they don’t use our product to compete with us.
- We will use as permissive a license as is possible to make life easy for users; how permissive is determined by the degree to which it creates competition.
- We intend to offer one or more commercial licenses of our products to paying users and we will act to ensure that we can provide such licenses.
- We appreciate all attempted code contributions but may only accept them if the authors are willing to sign over their rights to the commercial entity.
- We support our non-paying users to the extent possible, but seek to lead them to become self-supporting; we support for free where such support benefits us.
- Users inform our roadmap and development, but cannot actively participate in it. Critical parts of our development processes will always be closed.
- Any contributions that don’t touch our intellectual property directly but are well-meaning are always welcome and we seek to support them.
This is a generic pledge and a specific vendor’s mileage or situation may vary and require adaptation.
As of this writing, there was no single permissive open source license that would fulfill this pledge. Hence, in the highly competitive cloud database space, where users are application developers who would not accept a reciprocal license, vendors left the open source community at large (and I’m sure they are not happy about it). This does not imply there won’t be a possible open source license that fulfills this pledge, however, the non-discrimination requirement of open source licenses won’t make it easy.
Please note that I consider pure service and support firms for community open source (not commercial open source) not commercial open source firms. They can be viable businesses, but they usually don’t have a VC on their back. They also do not have the prospect of the outside returns that commercial open source can provide.