Not Quite “Open” Source

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Friday, February 22, 2019     05:45PM /  By Angel List  


Open source licensing has always been a hotbed of debate. Oracle, for example, is still suing Google for copyright infringement over the use of Java APIs. And the complexity of open source licensing is about to get even worse.


Redis Labs, the commercial provider of the open source Redis project, announced another change to its licensing model today. The company, which just raised a $60 million Series E, had changed its license in December to include a new “Commons Clause,” which is an addition to existing open source licenses “allowing all permissions of the original license to remain except the ability to 'Sell' the software as defined in the text.”


The latest license, though, is even more explicit. According to TechCrunch, the license—which Redis Labs is calling the Redis Source Available License—allows users to access and use Redis Labs' code in their software, as long as that software isn't “a database product, caching engine, stream processing engine, search engine, indexing engine or ML/DL/AI serving engine.” In other words, it can't be a direct commercial competitor to Redis Labs.


The new license is widely seen as a move against AWS. As Salil Deshpande, managing director of Bain Capital (an investor in Redis Labs) wrote last year, “Amazon takes Redis (the most loved database in StackOverflow’s developer survey), gives very little back, and runs it as a service, re-branded as AWS Elasticache. Many other popular open-source projects including, Elasticsearch, Kafka, Postgres, MySQL, Docker, Hadoop, Spark and more, have similarly been taken and offered as AWS products. To be clear, this is not illegal. But we think it is wrong and not conducive to sustainable open-source communities.”


Redis Labs is not alone in its complaints. MongoDB Inc. recently rolled out a new license called the Server Side Public License (SSPL), which would put similar limitations on the usage of free MongoDB code by cloud providers like AWS. And Confluent rolled out a license titled the Confluent Community License that, in the company's words, “allows you to freely download, modify, and redistribute the code (very much like Apache 2.0 does), but it does not allow you to provide the software as a SaaS offering (e.g. KSQL-as-a-service).”


The incentives for these companies to change their licenses are obvious. Providers like AWS are making huge profits taking free code and running it as a service, and companies like Redis Labs would prefer to be the ones profiting.


But significant risk comes along with these new licenses. Popular open source projects draw a lot of their power from the mindshare they're able to drive—having thousands of engineers use and rely on your software is the most organic marketing you can get. Drawing the ire of the open source community, as a result, is no small danger.


MongoDB, for example, was dropped by open source giant Red Hat, with Red Hat's Tom Callaway saying “it seems clear that the intent of the license author is to cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt towards commercial users of software under that license.” Redis Labs, shortly after adopting the Commons Clause, had its code forked by Fedora and Debian engineers into a new, fully open source project called GoodFORM.


While we've seen some major wins for companies that specialize in building open source software—Red Hat's $34 billion dollar acquisition is still fresh in everyone's minds—there still is no tried-and-true playbook for these companies.


It will be interesting to see if they're able to walk this tightrope, retaining the communities that power their success, while maximizing profits.

 

 

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