A Quick Comment On Bryan Cantrill’s Blog On Licensing

Bryan Cantrill wrote a critique of alternative software licensing schemes. I have a lot of respect for Bryan’s work, so it seemed worthwhile to respond to some of his points, especially those that seemed aimed at Confluent’s license change. I’ll just make a few quick points:

  1. We aren’t trying to get cloud providers to license our proprietary features. We at Confluent run a cloud service for our software. Elastic, MongoDB, and, I believe, CockroachDB, have the same model. I don’t believe any of these companies are looking to license IP to public cloud providers. I think this is just a misunderstanding, it’s not really central to what Bryan is saying, but seems worth correcting.
  2. The book analogy is not accurate; for starters, copyright does not apply to physical books and intangibles like software or digital books in the same way. We have an FAQ that helps describe how the license works. The limitations it includes are extraordinarily narrow, 99.9999% of users are completely unimpacted, it really only impacts companies wanting to offer, say, KSQL-as-a-service.
  3. We actually aren’t trying to “co-opt” the community or open source terminology. We tried really hard both in the license and in the blog post to be honest and upfront. Whether you like Confluent’s license or not, you have to agree it is exceptionally permissive and the software has a pretty great community of users. How do you describe a license that lets you run, modify, fork, and redistribute the code and do virtually anything other than offer a competing SaaS offering of the product? I think Bryan’s sentiment may be that it should be called the Evil Proprietary Corruption of Open Source License or something like that, but, well, we disagree. It’s worth coming back to the central point: our goal in all of this is to give away software in as liberal a way as we can sustain.
  4. We’re quite confident that the license is enforceable and we spent significant time and effort in the design to ensure this. It’s a bit ironic because I remember the FUD around GPL being that it was “totally unenforceable”. I think there is a healthy skepticism of new licenses but I think the world has changed enough that a new approach is warranted. My hope is new standards will emerge in this area.
  5. The “open source companies are all failing”-meme isn’t factually correct. Many open source companies are actually doing quite well. MongoDB has gone up in value about 3x over the last year, Elastic was the breakout IPO of the year. There are a handful of other really strong businesses growing quickly, including Confluent. An open source project is not in-and-of-itself a business model, but it is, just empirically, a big part of some of the recent successes in the infrastructure space. Probably worth noting that the reverse is true too: if you look at some of the really cool up-and-coming open source platform data technologies, a lot of them have the support of a company behind them. Of course there are plenty of sucky open source startups, but that is true of every category of startup.
  6. I agree that it is silly to moralize about the behavior of the cloud providers. They are following their economic interest. The point is that this behavior does undermine the cycle of investment in some of the more promising hard tech open source projects, and to try to change this dynamic.
  7. I feel the sentiment that “internal internet company infrastructure turned open source” is a panacea, either for sustaining investment or building healthy communities, is wrong. I’ve personally spent a lot of time working in this mode and it has huge, huge challenges. This is not to say that the open core model is perfect either, but it is actually working pretty well in a number of companies and communities. This is probably the topic for a whole other blog post.
  8. I totally agree that companies that build around an ecosystem have a responsibility to that ecosystem well beyond their narrow profit motive. I think this balance is complex and requires care. This is not limited to open source ecosystems, I think it applies Facebook or AWS just as much. The responsibility to the ecosystem is very much in the company’s long term interest. Companies that poison the well end up drinking the water. I don’t think a company is inherently a bad way to contribute to an ecosystem, though, and I think it is not a coincidence that many of the biggest and most valuable ecosystems have one or more commercial sponsors.
  9. This article has a bit of a tone of “Son, new things aren’t possible, trust me, I tried them and have the scars to prove it”. I have huge respect for some of the things Bryan has helped build, but I’m not sure this reasoning is most likely to lead to improvement. I don’t think the current crop of licenses were handed down from the mountain on stone tablets by our elders to be revered and not questioned. I think CockroachDB, Elastic, MongoDB, and Confluent are building really innovative technology platforms and building pretty cool companies to help fund that. I don’t think we need dogma. And I still don’t say “GNU/Linux”. :-)