Legally Ignoring The License

Perhaps the biggest current challenge to open source software is companies which ignore open source software licenses. That sounds so “yesterday” from an era of license scanners and compliance scares. But the issue is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago – just not the way you think!

Contributor agreements have been a controversial topic throughout their history. The choices by Elastic (and others before them) to relicense previously open source software under a licensing arrangement that discriminates against certain users threw the use of contributor agreements into sharp relief. But the controversy around them focused too much on the wrong problem. The main problem with a copyright-assigning agreement is not it giving the right to the aggregator to relicense the work (although that is a problem as it enables the end game of a rights ratchet). The main problem is it allows the aggregator, uniquely in the community, to ignore the license altogether.

A Brief History Of Scareware

All Open Source licenses grant unconditional permission in advance to those who comply with their terms to use, improve and share the software in any way and for any purpose. At a stroke, scope for artificially making the (inherently non-rivalrous) software scarce are eliminated. Of course, that’s a serious problem if you’re an entrepreneur whose imagination only extends to directly monetising access to the software.

Right from the start wily entrepreneurs realised that Copyleft licenses scared and confused some people, especially lawyers. So they sold customers the right to replace the open source license with a proprietary one – for some reason something customers’ lawyers found less scary. The pioneer of this approach was probably Sleepycat Software Inc whose BerkeleyDB embeddable database came under a source-available arrangement that left their users in no doubt that they had to make their own private work available to the public. Sleepycat sold a “commercial use” license that didn’t have the same requirement but which also left the user with none of the four freedoms. Selling indulgences had been profitable in the middle ages and it also worked for Sleepycat, all the way to acquisition.

Inspired by that success, many other companies sold indulgences. As the market wised up to the GPL and corporate counsel was no longer scared by it, companies transitioned to using other scareware licenses such as AGPL as well as to using “open core” approaches where the commercially valuable functions were not in the open source code at all. By using the no-charge availability of the software to gain adoption, free adoptors could be converted to paying customers and ultimately to lock-in. Some users of this strategy – notably SugarCRM – were able to ratchet back the freedom over time until they had an old-style proprietary software business.

Controlling The “Community”

However, there was an inconvenience. For much software, gaining adoption meant persuading cautious, picky developers to use the code — hand-waving to the boss was no longer enough. Once they were using the source, developers might well improve it. Inspired by the likes of Apache and Mozilla they then might well share their improvements, thus forming a community to produce better code than you. So it was smart to invite and use their improvements and thus keep control of the community.

But then the presence of these contributions under the GPL would make you subject to the GPL yourself and unable to sell indulgences or ignore the license. The fix to this was to speak to the sense of fairness and desire for an easy life (and pleasure of recognition) and claim it was in everyone’s interests for the core company to own all the copyrights. Apache and the FSF helped things along by socialising the idea of copyright assignments1. All these factors led developers to agree to gift the IP rights to their work to the core company. The name of such a document is a contributor license agreement or CLA.

Once they have a CLA, a company is able to aggregate all the rights to the software as if they own it. This has several consequences for the project:

  • They can sell indulgences, so that some community members are able to ignore the license.
  • They can ignore the license as well, enabling open core models that could otherwise be impossible.
  • They can do secret deals with other companies to treat the code as their own or even sell the complete rights, including to a company that actually wants to end the project. Because they can act secretly they can potentially preempt forks.
  • They can make releases without community consensus, making it impossible for peers to join in.
  • They can change the license by fiat, including to one that harms bona fides contributors they want to disadvantage
  • They can end the public project completely, as SugarCRM did.

Socially Unacceptable

An open source licence is a multi-lateral constitution of a community, setting norms that apply equally to all. Having every developer and user subject to the same terms is one of the pillars of community. A copyright assignment provides unqualified and unappealable immunity to all that. The presence of one in a commercially-backed project is almost certain to mean someone doesn’t want to be subject to the rules and norms everyone else must abide by, usually as part of a rights ratchet. They and their sham freedoms should no longer be tolerated by open source contributors.


Footnote 1: In both cases the CLA is – at best – marginal to the community. At Apache, the CLA is redundant with section 5 of the Apache License which many people believe grants all the rights the community needs. Folklore at Apache says that IBM’s lawyers were not sure of that and just to be certain insisted there be a CLA as well. At the FSF, the CLA is also redundant with GPLv3 (and likely with GPLv2 as well) but it has long argued that the FSF needs to own the copyrights in the USA in order to pursue license compliance — even though they don’t do so much and the surrender of copyright reduces the ability of the actual developers to choose to enforce.