Open source is still not a business model

If you thought 2021 was going to be the year without big drama in the world of open source licensing, you didn’t have to wait long to be disappointed. Two stories have already sprung up in the first few weeks of the year. They’re independent, but related. Both of them remind us that open source is a development model, not a business model.

Elasticsearch and Kibana

A few years ago, it seemed like I couldn’t go to any sysadmin/DevOps conference or meetup without hearing about the “ELK stack“. ELK stands for the three pieces of software involved: Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana. Because it provided powerful aggregation, search, and visualization of arbitrary log files, it became very popular. This also meant that Amazon Web Services (AWS) saw value in providing an Elasticsearch service.

As companies moved more workloads to AWS it made sense to pay AWS for Amazon Elasticsearch Service instead of paying Elastic. This represented what you might call a revenue problem for Elastic. So they decided to follow MongoDB’s lead and change their license to the Server Side Public License (SSPL).

The SSPL is essentially a “you can’t use it, AWS” license. This makes it decidedly not open source. Insultingly, Elastic’s announcement and follow-up messaging include phrases like “doubling down on open”, implying that the SSPL is an open source license. It is not. It a source-available license. And, as open source business expert VM Brasseur writes, it creates business risk for companies that use Elasticsearch and Kibana.

Elastic is, of course, free to use whatever license it wants for the software it develops. And it’s free to want to make money. But it’s not reasonable to get mad at companies using the software under the license you chose to use for it. Picking a license is a business decision.

Shortly before I sat down to write this post, I saw that Amazon has forked Elasticsearch and Kibana. They will take the last-released versions and continue to develop them as open source projects under the Apache License v2. This is entirely permissible and to be expected when a project makes a significant licensing change. So now Elastic is in danger of a sizable portion of the community moving to the fork and away from their projects. If that pans out, it may end up being more harmful than Amazon Elasticsearch Service ever was.

Nmap Public Source License

The second story actually started in the fall of 2020, but didn’t seem to get much notice until after the new year. The developers of nmap, the widely-used security scanner, began using a new license. Prior to the release of version 7.90, nmap was under a modified version of the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2). This license had some additional “gloss”, but was generally accepted by Linux distributions to be a valid free/open source software license.

With version 7.90, nmap is now under the Nmap Public Source License (NPSL). Version 0.92 of this license contained some phrasing that seemed objectionable. The Gentoo licenses team brought their concerns to the developers in a GitHub issue. Some of their concerns seemed like non-issues to me (and to the lawyers at work I consulted with on this), but one part in particular stood out.

Proprietary software companies wishing to use or incorporate Covered Software within their programs must contact Licensor to purchase a separate license

It seemed clear that the intent was to restrict proprietary software, not otherwise-compliant projects from companies that produce proprietary software. Nonetheless, as it was written, it constituted a violation of the Open Source Definition, and we rejected it for use in Fedora.

To their credit, the developers took the feedback well and quickly released an updated version of the license. They even retroactively licensed affected releases under the updated license. Unfortunately, version 0.93 still contains some problems. In particular, the annotations still express field of endeavor restrictions.

While the license text is the most important part, the annotations still matter. They indicate the intent of the license and guide the interpretation by lawyers and judges. So newer versions of nmap remain unsuitable for some distributions.

Licenses are not for you to be clever

Like with Elastic, I’m sympathetic to the nmap developers’ position. If someone is going to use their project to make money, they’d like to get paid, too. That’s an entirely reasonable position to take. But the way they went about it isn’t right. As noted in the GitHub issue, they’re not copyright attorneys. If they were, the license would be much better.

It seems like the developers are fine with people free-riding profit off of nmap so long as the software used to generate the profit is also open source. In that case, why not just use a professionally-drafted and vetted license like the AGPL? The NPSL is already using the GPLv2 and adding more stuff on top of it, and it’s the more stuff on top of it that’s causing problems.

Trying to write your business model into a software license that purports to be open source is a losing proposition.

2 thoughts on “Open source is still not a business model

  1. Pingback: What does "open source" mean in 2021? – Blog FiascoBlog Fiasco

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Elastic License v2 – Blog FiascoBlog Fiasco

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