“Open Core” Is the New Shareware

Friday 16 October 2009 by Bradley M. Kuhn

[ I originally wrote this essay below centered around the term “Open Core”. Despite that even say below that the terms is somewhat meaningless, I later realized this term was so problematic that it should be abandoned entirely, for use instead of the clearer term “proprietary relicensing”. However, since this blog post was widely linked to, I've nevertheless left the text as it originally was in October 2009. ]

There has been some debate recently about so-called “Open Core” business models. Throughout the history of Free Software, companies have loved to come up with “innovative” proprietary-like ways to use the FLOSS licensing structures. Proprietary relicensing, a practice that I believe has proved itself to have serious drawbacks, was probably the first of these, and now Open Core is the next step in this direction. I believe the users embracing these codebases may be ignoring a past they're condemned to repeat.

Like most buzzwords, Open Core has no real agreed-upon meaning. I'm using it to describe a business model whereby some middleware-ish system is released by a single, for-profit entity copyright holder, who requires copyright-assigned changes back to the company, and that company sells proprietary add-ons and applications that use the framework. Often, the model further uses the GPL to forbid anyone but the copyright-holding company to make such proprietary add-on applications (i.e., everyone else would have to GPL their applications). In the current debate, some have proposed that a permissive license structure can be used for the core instead.

Ultimately, “Open Core” is a glorified shareware situation. As a user, you get some subset of functionality, and may even get the four freedoms with regard to that subset. But, when you want the “good stuff”, you've got to take a proprietary license. And, this is true whether the Core is GPL'd or permissively licensed. In both cases, the final story is the same: take a proprietary license or be stuck with cripple-ware.

This fact remains true whether the Open Core is under a copyleft license or a permissive one. However, I must admit that a permissive license is more intellectually honest to the users. When users encounter a permissive license, they know what they are in for: they may indeed encounter proprietary add-ons and improvements, either from the original distributor or a third party. For example, Apple users sadly know this all too well; Apple loves to build on a permissively licensed core and proprietarize away. Yet, everyone knows what they're getting when they buy Apple's locked down, unmodifiable, and programmer-unfriendly products.

Meanwhile, in more typical “Open Core” scenarios, the use of the GPL is actually somewhat insidious. I've written before about how the copyleft is a tool, not an end in itself. Like any tool, it can be misused or abused. I think using the GPL as a tool for corporate control over users, while legally permissible, is ignoring the spirit of the license. It creates two classes of users: those precious few that can proprietarize and subjugate others, and those that can't.1

This (ab)use of GPL has led folks like Matt Aslett to suggest that the permissive licensing solution would serve this model better. While I've admitted such a change would have some level of increased intellectually honesty, I don't think it's the solution we should strive for to solve the problem. I think Aslett's completely right when he argues that GPL'd “Open Core” became popular because it's Venture Capitalists' way of making peace with freely licensed copyrights. However, heading to an Apple-like permissive only structure only serves to make more Apple-like companies, and that's surely not good for software freedom either. In fact, the problem is mostly orthogonal to licensing. It's a community building problem.

The first move we have to make is simply give up the idea that the best technology companies are created by VC money. This may be true if your goal is to create proprietary companies, but the best Free Software companies are the small ones, 5-10 employees, that do consulting work and license all their improvements back to a shared codebase. From low-level technology like Linux and GCC to higher-level technology like Joomla all show that this project structure yields popular and vibrant codebases. The GPL was created to inspire business and community models like these examples. The VC-controlled proprietary relicensing and “Open Core” models are manipulations of the licensing system. (For more on this part of my argument, I suggest my discussions on Episode 0x14 of the (defunct) Software Freedom Law Show.)

I realize that it's challenging for a community to create these sort of codebases. The best way to start, if you're a small business, is to find a codebase that gets you 40% or so toward your goal and start contributing to the code with your own copyrights, licensed under GPL. Having something that gets you somewhere will make it easier to start your business on a consulting basis without VC, and allow you to be part of one of these communities instead of trying to create an “Open Core” community you can exploit with proprietary licensing. Furthermore, the fact that you hold copyright alongside others will give you a voice that must be heard in decision-making processes.

Finally, if you find an otherwise useful single-corporate-copyright-controlled GPL'd codebase from one of these “Open Core” companies, there is something simple you can do:

Fork! In essence, don't give into pressure by these companies to assign copyright to them. Get a group of community developers together and maintain a fork of the codebase. Don't be mean about it, and use git or another DVCS to keep tracking branches of the company's releases. If enough key users do this and refuse to assign copyright, the good version will eventually become community one rather than the company-controlled one.

My colleague Carlo Piana points out a flaw in this plan, saying the ant cannot drive the elephant. While I agree with Carlo generally, I also think that software freedom has historically been a little bit about ants driving elephants. These semi-proprietary business models are thriving on the fundamental principle of a proprietary model: keep users from cooperating to improve the code on which they all depend. It's a prisoner's dilemma that makes each customer afraid to cooperate with the other for fear that the other will yield to pressure not to cooperate. As the fictional computer Joshua points out, this is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

The software freedom world is more complex than it once was. Ten years ago, we advocates could tell people to look for the GPL label and know that the software would automatically be part of a freedom-friendly, software sharing community. Not all GPL'd software is created equal anymore, and while the right to fork remains firmly in tact, the realities of whether such forks will survive, and whether the entity controlling the canonical version can be trusted is another question entirely. The new advice is: judge the freedom of your codebase not only on its license, but also on the diversity of the community that contributes to it.

1I must put a fine point here that the only way companies can manipulate the GPL in this example is by demanding full copyright assignment back to the corporate entity. The GPL itself protects each individual contributor from such treatment by other contributors, but when there is only one contributor, those protections evaporate. I must further note that for-profit corporate assignment differs greatly from assignment to a non-profit, as non-profit copyright assignment paperwork typically includes broad legal assurances that the software will never be proprietarized, and furthermore, the non-profit's very corporate existence hinges on engaging only in activity that promotes the public good.

Posted on Friday 16 October 2009 at 18:15 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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