January 08, 2024

Open Source Perspective

I think one reason there is so much argument about what Open Source is and what it should become is that we have multiple, perhaps irreconcilable perspectives, which depend on what you’re looking for. 

User Perspective 

A lot of Open Source software Users do not work with Source Code – for them, Open Source is a way of getting the foundation pieces to build their solutions reducing lock-in and ensuring there is fair pricing for solutions they need, which can only come with competition. I would argue for Users the current Open Source Definition works pretty well, if anything many users see Permissive Open Source Licenses (APL2, BSD, MIT, etc) as Real Open Source because it allows them the most freedom of using the source code. 

Developer/Contributor Perspective 

When it comes to Developers, there are actually a variety of perspectives. If the Developer controls the project, they may feel things are unfair – Users may be building successful businesses partly because of the Software Developer created, but the only things they give back are bug reports, complaints, and feature demands. Feeling powerless to compel Users to give back, Developers may consider quitting their involvement with the project… or changing the license which gives them power to force users to give back.     

On the other hand, if you’re a developer who does not control the project you may have other concerns – you may want to ensure the project you contributed to, both a code and in other ways, continues to be available to you under the same conditions that motivated your involvement. The significant outcry over Elastic or Hashicorp changing their license was partly due to this – contributors who helped create the products no longer had access to future versions on the same terms. Preventing this is not just about the license but often about the governance of the project – is it managed to benefit a single commercial vendor or the entire ecosystem at large?

Commercial Vendor/Investor Perspective 

You’ve probably heard many of those cries – “Cloud Vendors are Strip Mining Open Source” making it harder to compete and threatening a company’s survival. What Commercial Vendors often desire are rules of the game similar to those of Proprietary Software, where they retain all the leverage, exercise pricing power, and can avoid competition. It’s all good but what does it have to do with Open Source, specifically the term of “Open Source” you may ask? Well, “Open Source” is generally recognized as something more beneficial than Proprietary software, much like Organic Foods are seen better than GMOs. Due to this public perception, they want to label their software, which makes it easy for them to profit, as “Open Source”. 

As you can see, fundamentally we face a question of how many rights and freedoms open source software users should have versus the control creators maintain. Traditional Open Source definition is very much pro-user and all the recent license changes are geared towards shifting this balance away from the users and towards creators. All attempts to “expand Open Source definition” do the same – they reduce the rights and freedoms required for the software to be called Open Source”. 

I believe users need a clear name for the class of licenses that grants them the most freedom, and as such, we should ensure Open Source remains “user friendly”. At the same time, we need more choices for developers and businesses that require more of their “rights reserved”. The innovation happening with new Source Available licenses is fantastic; however, labeling them as Open Source or “almost as good as open source” is not. 

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