The problem with Amazon and Open Source isn’t Amazon

5 minute read

Wrong Way
‘Wrong Way’ by Elaine with Grey Cats on Flickr; CC-BY

Recently a friend wrote asking me “what’s up with Amazon and open source?” and “is there a chance these new licenses will be approved by OSI?” What follows is my reply.

There’s been a rash of open source project relicensing happening the past few months, and in nearly every case the company making the licensing change is claiming that that they’re doing it to protect the project in question from Amazon.

That is a big steaming pile of bullshit.

First of all: There is absolutely nothing wrong with how Amazon is using these open source projects. They are operating completely and entirely within the bounds of the licenses of the projects. Fingers need to be wagged here, but not at Amazon.

These projects are not being relicensed to protect them from Amazon. Claiming that they are is at best naive and at worst wilfully lying. These companies are relicensing projects to cover for the fact that they are ignorant of how to run a successful business. They knowingly released their secret sauce under permissive licenses and have discovered that doing so means that competitors can create more compelling product offerings based upon the same technology. This is entirely in accordance not only with the licenses that these companies knowingly chose, but also with a competitive market. The only problem with this is that it came as a surprise to these “open source” companies and now they’re reacting poorly.

If these companies actually cared about the projects, they would have invested the resources to build stronger communities around them. They would have reached out to Amazon, encouraged them to contribute back to the projects, and helped them to do so. They would NOT have taken the few community contributions—and you will find that most of these projects do not have many contributions from outside of the originating company, showing how poorly they managed their communities—they would not have taken these contributions from community members and then locked them behind proprietary licenses, violating the trust of their community.

You will find that none of the companies that have relicensed their projects address any of these issues. They don’t discuss how they tried to engage Amazon in their communities, how their attempts fell on deaf ears or were rebuffed. They can’t do this because thus far there is no evidence to show they even tried. I know a lot of the open source leadership at Amazon. They’re good people who care deeply about free and open source and who are working to do the right thing by all of the communities of the projects they build upon. They would have been very open to hearing how they could make a positive difference in those communities. They’re a relatively few people across a very large company, so it may have taken a bit more time to get those contribution balls rolling, but they would have worked very hard to do so…had they been approached.

So don’t fall into the trap of unquestionably believing the recent spate of anti-Amazon propaganda. It comes from, without exception, companies that simply do not appear to understand how to operate successful businesses. From what I can tell, they’ve received poor advice from their VCs. Not knowing any better, they understandably followed this advice and now they’re paying the price.

As far as whether there’s any chance these new licenses will be OSI approved, I answer a pretty definitive “no.” There are two reasons for this. First of all, these companies would have to submit the licenses for review. OSI does not just go looking for licenses to review. License creators must take the action to say, “Hey, this is a new license that we believe adheres to the Open Source Definition. It’s valuable to us and to the community that it be recognised as such. Could you please review it and confirm that?” So far only one company has tried that and they failed to get their license approved, because of the second reason…

In order to become OSI-approved, licenses must adhere to the Open Source Definition (OSD). These new licenses do not. While the ways they diverge from the OSD are varied, the most common ones are that they violate either “6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor”, “8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product”, “9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software”, or “10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral”.

#6 is the one most violated by these licenses. Restricting to non-commercial usage is fundamentally against the spirit of free and open source software. From the very beginning, Stallman himself was very emphatic that people be allowed to make money from free software. He and FOSS leaders after him realised that preventing people from making money from free and open source software will doom the movement. It is vitally important to FOSS that people be encouraged to use it in commercial and for-profit ventures. This will help foster the spread of FOSS. These licenses disregard both that and the benefit of this clause of the OSD to the whole of FOSS in preference to their own singular commercial needs.

In fact, the vibrant cloud-based and cloud-native environment within which most software companies operate now and which makes so much innovation possible (including that of these misled companies), exists because companies have released their technologies under OSI-approved licenses and have come together to collaborate on common and powerful tools. This is the culture that successful companies embrace. Even Microsoft, the former nemesis of free and open source, recognizes that this type of collaboration is critical to the continued growth and evolution of the company.

To be perfectly clear: There is nothing wrong with making money from software, FOSS or otherwise. Choosing to use a proprietary license for software is a valid business decision and one I support. Choosing to use an OSI-approved license is an equally valid business decision and, again, one I support. However the license to choose for the software created by your company is just that: a BUSINESS decision.

There are many potential variables to consider and those variables will be different for each company, but “how will we make enough money from this to maintain and grow the company sustainably?” is one that is consistent across all of these decisions. If a company’s answer to that is, “we’ll just give away the software to bring in leads” but they don’t have a compelling enough commercial offering on top of that to convert those leads to sales, while their competitor converts those leads and more using the same technology, that is NOT the fault of open source software, licensing, or culture. That’s a company that doesn’t understand how to do business, and blaming Amazon isn’t going to change that.

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