Are open source licenses as important as before?

MongoDB’s efforts to obtain approval from the Open Source Initiative for a more business-friendly license, SSPL, have failed. The company has therefore chosen to do without it, and this could well be a turning point in the history of open source.

What is happening right now is interesting. Never has open source been so ubiquitous in software, and yet it has never been as fluid as it seems now. Faced with cloud giants like Amazon Web Services, virtually capable of crushing them outright, companies managing open source projects, like MongoDB and Elasticsearch, have sought ways to defend themselves while encouraging companies to pay.

The problem of open source licensing

Judging by their financial results, the AWS threat was slightly overestimated. But it is understandable that MongoDB and others are looking for ways to protect their investments. Eliot Horowitz, technical director of MongoDB, recently said that his company had spent more than $300 million to develop its database, which is then made available free of charge to everyone, in open source. But the fact that AWS or another cloud service provider can grab this code without giving anything in return is a real problem.

Hence the use of the SSPL license, which essentially says: “If you make MongoDB available as a service, you must contribute to the code of that service.” It may go a little far, but it is understandable why MongoDB chose this system. It is also not difficult to understand why the publisher has just decided to give up the blessing of the Open Source Initiative on the SSPL.

MongoDB changes strategy

The outcry against the SSPL by some members of the open source community was loud and sustained. Despite MongoDB’s reasonable efforts to amend the SSPL to address the objections, the company finally decided to throw in the towel, as Eliot Horowitz explained: “We continue to believe that the SSPL is consistent with the open source definition and the four essential software freedoms. However, given its reception by the entire community, the consensus necessary to support OSI approval does not seem to exist at this time. Therefore, we now remove the SSPL from the consideration of the OSI Board of Directors.”

The CEO of MongoDB detailed what he intends to do to refine the license and work with other industry players to try to find a way to defend against the impending threat of the cloud. In the meantime, MongoDB will continue to offer its community edition under SSPL as if it were open source by allowing users to “examine, modify and distribute the software or redistribute modifications made to the software following the license.” It is not open source in itself, but it allows most users to have freedom similar to that provided by open source. And that’s when it gets interesting.

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