A Bit Of A Stretch

The lesson Elastic’s restrictive relicensing teaches is that those using open source to ratchet a software startup will forsake software freedom eventually if they’re aggregating rights. That’s no reason to believe open source needs updating.

Camille Claudel's sculpture "The Mature Age" illustrates the abandonment of principle as the subject matures.
“The Mature Age” — Camille Claudel

Many of the responses to the decision of Elastic to drop open source licensing for their products and instead use restrictive commercial licensing have involved asking whether they were justified to do so based on market conditions (especially the provision of a service by Amazon Web Services) or diving into the minutiae of what they actually did. Some see it as support for the hypothesis that the very definition of “open source” is out of date. But to do so is to swallow the bait of distracting explanation and overlook the actual value of open source and why Elastic — and the cloud databases before them — no longer care about it.

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Apache License Yes, Apache CLA No

In a thread on Twitter, the CTO at Chef Software defended the company against the accusation from an open source contributor that it demands copyright assignment from contributors. Chef’s CTO Adam Jacob explained that the company does copy Apache rules and thus requires a copyright license agreement (CLA) in addition to Apache’s open source license – not copyright assignment. He said:

we have never asked for copyright assignment. We do ask for a license, as Apache license requires.

That’s not actually correct, even if it’s a sufficiently common misunderstanding that Jacob really shouldn’t be called out for asserting it (especially as he was probably just suffering from Twitter’s 140 character limit!). Copying Apache’s license does not imply you should copy the rest of Apache’s CLA practice. The Apache License v2 (ALv2) is the best choice among non-reciprocal licenses for new projects, mostly because it includes explicit patent licensing. It is a perfectly effective license to use for any open source project where the community has no expectation of contribution on the part of users of the code, as it conveys all the rights you need to work with the code independently of others. Continue reading

The Power To Act Against The Community’s Interests

This week it emerged that somehow an error had found its way into the MySQL build system which had changed the licenses on the manual pages from GPL to a restrictive proprietary license. It took some two months before the issue was discovered. Oracle have reversed that change now, so the panic mode has passed. The incident definitely served as a timely reminder though, waking up the open source community once again to the care and attention needed when considering the use of “contributor agreements”.

While they’ve promised that they’re not going to do any such thing, Oracle could potentially change the MySQL license at any moment. Contributors needn’t be party to that decision as they sign away any copyright interests they have in the project when they sign the contributor agreement. For those starting new projects though, this incident highlights one of the reasons contributor agreements can detract from the health of a project. There are other alternatives that should be considered.

In this week’s InfoWorld article Simon takes a look at contributor agreements, commenting on the practices of duel licensing and copyright aggregation along the way. What is the best way to make sure that your community flourishes?