Going With The Commons Clause?

I’ve been debating what license to use for Vespene.io, my new project, for some time. As I stated here, my goal with Vespene is to work with users to build great software together.

I think I am very close to going with the Commons Clause + Apache 2 for Vespene after a lot of internal debate. This is what Redis Labs did recently with relicensing some optional plugins. In this case, we’re not relicensing an existing offering, but starting out with something new.


Is it though?

Vespene is going to be free forever for all end users, and there are never going to be any closed source components BECAUSE of this plan. This means that others won’t be able to sell Vespene, through support/consulting offerings or hosting. I want to explain that decision.

First off, this is not a “no-commercial use” restriction. It does mean that you can use it completely free in your place of business, and I suspect that to be most of the audience. I want this to be used in tons of businesses!

I don’t believe in taking donations — this encourages people who might not have the money feel like they need to contribute to someone who does. I’m not going there. I’m also not going to set up a foundation — I’m one person, and that would be (IMHO) kind of silly.

For those that do want to perform consulting on Vespene, we’re going to have a very affordable partnership program. This program waives the Commons Clause and will also include home promotional space on the Vespene homepage. The goal of this program is to help pay for upkeep of the Vespene community. This is a mutual benefit sort of deal — I want the value to partnership program members to well exceed the cost of the partnership.

In the event I ever decide to stop working on the project, I will relicense the project and remove the Commons Clause.

Does this require trust? Yes it does. Do I have a track record that should enable that trust? I hope I do.

In summary, what you get:

  • A (hopefully) great tool
  • A promise of no closed source components, ever
  • Free use for any purpose, commercial or otherwise except resale

What you don’t get

  • The ability to sell some software you didn’t create or write (sorry).

This seems ok to me. It’s going to be offensive to some. I hope those that are offended take my open source track record into account, and know it comes from a very good place. This is not perfect, no license is, but as I have read and agree with, projects are about communities and how they are run — and not licenses.

So this is more about a declaration of intent — I’m not about to pull the rug out from under someone and make something proprietary later, and this may be one way to do that.

And if this does work, this gives creators everywhere one more option to not seek out venture capitol or make proprietary software! I am in a position to be able to test this. Not many people are. If we can successfully prove it works, it helps refine business options for future creators a little bit, and gives open source new legs, where otherwise people are forced to create proprietary software instead.

So let’s try to disassemble the arguments against this.

It’s been said the Commons Clause is “evil” — I don’t believe I’m evil so I hope I don’t get a lot of that. But I also know that a lot of open source users have a lot of angriness in them (example: Hacker News) and use the internet to blow off steam. If some of those people don’t join my project, thankfully, it’s a good thing to be less stressed out about. I’m more concerned about losing the interest of people I respect and enjoyed working with a lot in the past. That being said, I believe creators have a duty to push the business models in ways that are sustainable, and I currently don’t feel that accepted “free software” does that. I kind of feel it is like some mega-capitalists saying “hey kids, you’re not allowed to do this with your stuff” in public, and in private, they are making megabucks off of software given in good faith. So is it wrong to wait to make a salary off making something? I don’t think so.

If I completely screw up and this is widely profitable, likely this would be used for charitable contributions. I don’t expect it to be widely profitable though. Just profitable enough

It’s also been said that it is an attempt to get free labor. That’s a valid argument. Opens source projects, even run by companies basically do not pay out to contributors for work. Part of the good nature of the community is things are not always done for money. Though almost always work contributed helps adoption, so the company running the project benefits more than the creator. In this case, there is not going to be any proprietary software, so I hope this builds MORE adoption, which in turn builds more free features, and I hope this results in contributors getting back greater value in terms of more free software.

The most damaging thing is I know awesome people who want to make money on this maybe can’t. So what we have to do is find a way to make the partner program very affordable for individual consultants. It’s not them I’m worried about at all. Earlier I was debating some language about company size restrictions, but I think the easiest thing to do is to just make this free for small consultants / companies, unless maybe they are building a hosted service. At this point, they are building their business and they need the money more than I do.

It doesn’t meet some definitions of open source, but I know personally it is way more open than the alternative of making a proprietary thing — so at that point, you have to ask if the language lawyering politics is more important than the spirit of the matter.

Even as Redis got jumped on, we really do have to assume their intent was good. They need to protect some things when there are some hostile players out there. They kept nearly everything open. This keeps EVERYTHING open, it keeps the lights on, I don’t have to worry about competition and can focus on giving stuff away, and I promise to not produce commercial bits. By not having to build a support business, I can also make the software better so it doesn’t need a support business.

Will people actually pay for a partner program that includes some advertising and maybe some extra communications/support if it’s low priced enough? Maybe.

If not, we can technically reconsider, and reconsideration can include dropping the clause.