November 2, 2023

The conflict between Open Source and Pseudo-Open Source: A story as old as the software itself

From open source roots drifting towards proprietary business models in the technology sector.

During the Linux Foundation Member Summit, held in Monterrey, California, there was a lot of discussion about artificial intelligence and open source. Another heated topic was HashiCorp's decision to abandon Terraform's Mozilla Public License (MPL) in favor of Business Source License (BSL) version 1.1, the birth of the OpenTofu fork, and HashiCorp CEO David McJannet's reactions to OpenTofu's support of the Linux Foundation.

The debate, splits and controversies continue to be heated and intense. However, it strikes me that many people consider this situation to be new, when in reality it is not.

It is neither the first nor the umpteenth time that a company transforms open source code into a proprietary product or places it inside an exclusive "shell".

For years, some have taken the open source code, removed the license, and gone on their way, without necessarily committing theft. In fact, some licenses such as the MIT or the two-clause BSD allow companies and developers to incorporate their code into proprietary software. Let's think about well-known MIT projects such as Angular, .NET, Node.js, Ruby on Rails and React.

Then there have been cases where originally open source software has been so modified by its creators that many no longer remember their free roots. An example above all is Apple's macOS operating system.

Surprised to learn that macOS had open source origins? In fact, that's how it is.

macOS has its roots in Darwin, a Unix operating system. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he brought with him the Unix-based NeXTStep operating system. In 2000, Apple replaced its Mac Classic operating system with macOS Darwin, which drew openly from the open source operating systems FreeBSD and Mach.

Even today, if you dig deep, you can find traces of Darwin under the Apple Public Source License 2.0 in macOS. There is even a project, PureDarwin, that strives to develop a standalone operating system based on Darwin, albeit with limited success. Apple has wisely let one of the most significant open source operating systems wither.

Most commonly, open source software integrates into commercial products through open core. The latter, unlike open source, is a business model: a company offers a free, open source basic version of its software, and then surrounds it with paid proprietary components.

The term “open core” was coined by Andrew Lampitt in 2008, but the concept already existed. It served to replace the ambiguous term “dual licensing” and promote a clear business model for open source communities, paying customers and vendors. It also aimed to prevent disputes like the ones we're seeing now with HashiCorp.

While the success of the open core model can be debated, there is no doubt that it has gained popularity. However, we have recently seen the shift from the open core model to the available source model, where the code is visible but not freely modifiable or usable in certain circumstances.

MongoDB introduced the Server Side Public License (SSPL), not recognized as open source, as a response to hypercloud platforms profiting from its code by offering self-hosted services.

Server Side Public License - MongoDB

MongoDB wasn't the only one; Elastic thrived on open core, but when AWS started making money by offering ElasticSearch as a service, Elastic changed the rules in 2021, moving to SSPL, moving away from the open source Apache 2.0 license.

These companies wanted to protect their products from being offered as a service by third parties. However, when AWS responded by forking the project, the situation resonated with the HashiCorp story.

While the licensing shift has sparked concerns among users and developers, these companies have continued to thrive. You can disapprove, but you have to recognize that from a business point of view the strategy was successful.

The case of Then Red Hat limited the use of its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) to customers only, is emblematic. For years, Red Hat has balanced its role as a champion of open source with managing RHEL clones like CentOS, and more recently AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux.

Over time, Red Hat has shown increasing reluctance to share its code, so much so that its commitment to open source has been questioned. Although Red Hat formally respects the GNU General Public License (GPL), some argue that it has lost its original spirit.

At the heart of all these cases there is a commonality: the pursuit of profit. The saying “the love of money is the root of all evil” may not be universal, but the intersection between the love of money and open source principles is often problematic.

There is nothing wrong with profiting from open source, as Richard M. Stallman states: “There is nothing wrong with wanting to get paid for work, or trying to maximize your income, as long as you don't use destructive means“. However, Stallman adds that “the goal of making money by limiting the use of a program is destructive".

Stallman's views may not be as widespread as they once were, but the tension between business practices and open source philosophy remains relevant, with many still on his side.

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