Open Source Commitment

Apr 20 2008

There is a lot of talking about MySQL launching some new products and extensions under close source. Matt Asay from the Open Road has a nice take about this and he raises a question:

"Is it fair or productive to close off the code after open source has made it popular ?"

There are in reality two questions here:

1/ Is it fair

For sure there is an issue here. An open source company is at the same time a business and it's license (double license) does not guarantee that they will continue in the same business model. Contributors and others have helped the software improve and spread and now they see a slowly but gradual divergence from the initial path they decided to support.

You can rely on "human decision" or on "market competition" to make sure they do stay in the same business model.

Now in the case of MySQL, You say Marten and folks mean well and usually do well. Let's face it. They have cashed out and the boss is now Sun. And Sun payed a hefty price and needs ROI. 

When it comes to "market competition" I think it's the same as "is it productive".

2/ Is it productive 

If you go down the road of closing, other open source products might get more traction if the strategy changes. Customers might feel played and you loose sales productivity. The double license might turn out in a pure GPL fork by the community. But saying that market competition will be sufficient to stop the trend to higher ROI through closing would be like saying that proprietary software companies are dead because of the open source competition. I don't believe this is true, although they will definitively see their revenues and margins crunch, but in my view it is at least like the Mainframe market. That's not were the innovation lies but you can still get tons of cash by servicing your customer base. 

This is the same for MySQL, they can decide to serve their customer base. It has good changes of being short term productive by making more short term cash, but this also leads to have the open source powered viral marketing stop.

3/ But what is the big question ?

The big question is actually: "When open source means investors and the stock market, who gets the final word ?"

  • is it the fairness ?
  • is it the market ?
  • is it the investors ?
  • is it the founders ?
  • is it the open source license ?

For sure we could dream of an ethical world where it's the fairness ! We could dream that the founders that have cashed out will still have a word to say. Of course the ones that finally decide are the owners of the company and the management team that these owners have put in charge. But they will usually have to follow a few rules: "the market" and the "legality". So we end up with the final sayers being:

  • is it productive in a competitive market place to close the open software that made you known worldwide ?   And that we seem to agree that we don't really know and that the market will show it. In any case when the open source company decides to do it, the community has lost something.
  • is it legal to turn an open software gradually to close source ? For me this ends up being the big question. And although it's not fair to the contributors, the GPL Double License business model makes it legal.

What's really important here is that other open source licenses won't allow this, like the GPL and LGPL without double license. Also a commitment to open source and openly downloadable products, like the OpenBravo commitment, would help (although it's not sure how binding a commitment like this is).

This is the reason why for XWiki (I'm the initial creator of XWiki both the software and the company), I choose the LGPL license without a double license constraint. This license gives sufficient rights for users (including commercial usage and integration possibilities in proprietary products) and it also binds the users (including XWiki, the company) to continue publishing under the LGPL open source license.

This is binding and will guarantee the continuity of the open source commitment, even if the ROI, the investors or the founders say otherwise. What's still required, is that the company can make sufficient money to fund its share of the development. 

We at XWiki will are looking into writing a similar commitment because we think it's important.