What We Mean by “No Gimmicks” Open Source Licensing

At our regular WSO2 Workshop series, I’ve noticed special interest in a slide I developed for the wrap-up presentation.  The slide is titled “Open-Source Licensing” and clarifies some of the differences between licensing models and why we think customers are wise to choose the Apache License (or similar) for their software deployments.  We believe this so strongly, we’ve built our business on it!

Here’s the diagram from the slide:

image

We believe the Apache License is superior for enterprise customers to the other models listed above.  Here’s why:

Public domain

Public domain software is completely free and has no encumbrances in terms of copyright or use, but it also lacks two important qualities.

First, there isn’t a clear trustworthy owner motivated to keep the software going.  In fact, experience has shown that “it takes a village,” and a vibrant open source community is essential to the long-term health of any software technology.  Open source licenses encourage such vital communities.

Secondly, just because software is in the public domain does not mean it doesn’t violate anyone’s patents.  There are no guarantees from anyone that the use or resale of the software won’t incur liability.

Apache License

The Apache License is “permissive.”  That is, it allows you not only to use the software, or to resell the software, but also to modify it and sell those modifications as you wish.  It’s not uncommon that software customers with innovative ideas evolve into software vendors.  The Apache license keeps your future options as wide open as does the public domain.

But in addition, the Apache 2.0 license grants some level of patent protection.  When you contribute code to an Apache-licensed project you also grant a license to any patents you hold that are necessarily infringed by your contribution.  Thus as a user you have some assurance that the creators won’t come after you.  When the creators represent a broad community, that assurance gets even stronger.  The strong Apache Software Foundation brand itself acts further as an informal deterrent to patent claims.  It’s not 100% protection but better than nothing (public domain) and roughly equivalent to GPL 3’s protection provisions.

The Apache license also tracks the provenance of the code, important in establishing it’s trustworthiness, through required attribution notices.  Just as in art, provenance of code establishes trust and value.

GPL

The other popular open source license is the GPL.  The GPL is what’s called a “copyleft” license.  It is designed primarily to protect the rights of the software developer, not the end user.  (Gee, isn’t that the goal of a proprietary license?)  GPL ensures the software is free, but includes the provision that derivatives must also remain free.  That limits your options to change direction and profit from your innovations in the future.  GPL instead ensures that the original developer, in return for contributing his code, can benefit from your improvements.  But let’s face it, that altruistic attitude won’t survive most enterprise legal review.  Especially in the face of fears that GPL, like Midas, turns everything it touches free.

Dual License

Because GPL’s copyleft provisions can be scary, many GPL-based open source companies have evolved a profitable workaround.  In many cases you can acquire GPL software under a separate commercial license.  That alternative license removes the viral copyleft feature, and replaces it with normal commercial restrictions – including license fees.

For many enterprises, this negates the advantages of open source software in the first place – avoiding lock-in to a specific vendor, having no control over pricing, and so forth.  What originally appeared as a free open source license has become in effect a paid proprietary license.  We classify that bait-and-switch as a gimmick.

It annoys us even more that many companies offer some products as open source (the “community edition”) and then reserve the real product (the “enterprise edition”) completely under a commercial license.  For serious users that’s not free software – just a free taste.  Often turning your proof of concept into a production deployment involves installing new software instead of flipping a switch – what a drag!

No Gimmicks

So when WSO2 claims we have a “no gimmicks” approach here’s the commitment we make:

  1. Our software line is available completely under the Apache license.
  2. There are no “community”, “light”, or “demo” versions – every edition is enterprise ready from day one.  Even our WSO2 Stratos cloud platform is Apache-licensed – the obvious high-value candidate for a dual-licensed model.
  3. We welcome you to join the community, ask questions on our forum, even become a committer.  If you don’t want or need a commercial support relationship with WSO2, we are still happy you are using our technology.  Just please tell your friends!
  4. We have to work consistently for your business, not lock you in.  Our success and business model is based entirely on providing the highest quality support services and doing everything we can to ensure your project is successful.
  5. Our support includes creation of patches for your deployed version of the product – so you don’t have to upgrade to the latest version to get a critical fix.  While these patches are created specifically for you under the terms of our Production Support agreement and are not redistributable, you are free to continue to keep them installed should you discontinue Production Support services.

Comments or questions?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Jonathan Marsh, VP Business Development and Marketing
Jonathan’s blog: http://jonathanmarsh.net/blog

2 thoughts on “What We Mean by “No Gimmicks” Open Source Licensing”

  1. Your statement that “the GPL is designed to protect the rights of the software developer and not the end user” is incorrect and misleading.

    See http://bit.ly/kqimD

    Excerpts from the GPL preamble:

    “The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program–to make sure it remains free software for all its users.”
    […]
    “To protect your rights, we need to prevent others from denying you these rights or asking you to surrender the rights. Therefore, you have certain responsibilities if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it: responsibilities to respect the freedom of others.”

    In other words, there are restrictions on software developers to protect the rights of the end-user. The GPL is therefore an end-user friendly licence.

    Please correct your misleading statement, or else people might think you have an axe to grind…

    1. Thanks Ganesh for the comment, and I’m happy to have that part of the GPL listed here so others can judge whether I have been misleading. I have indeed used the term “end user” a bit too loosely. But my primary argument here is that the line between “end users” and “software developers” is not a bright one and often changes over time. Today’s end user is tomorrow’s software developer. This seems especially likely in Enterprise middleware development, where the end user often is from day one an enterprise development team. The existence of dual licensing models demonstrates that when the Enterprise is the end user/developer, there may be legitimate concerns about adopting the GPL. We have not encountered the same level of concern with the Apache license.

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