The landscape of open source software is evolving in order to continue to thrive. Business Source Licenses are necessary for sustained innovation and are being embraced by leading open source innovators. This post breaks down why Dragonfly decided on BSL from the start.
September 7, 2023
Open source development stands as an awe-inspiring testament to the collaborative spirit of the developer community. It's a movement that has propelled innovation and progress in ways previously unimaginable. But today, as the open source landscape evolves, we find ourselves at a crossroads where sustainability has become a pressing concern. This is where the innovative Business Source License (BSL) model emerges as a potential savior, ushering in a new era of open source viability.
Traditional open source licenses have been the bedrock upon which countless remarkable achievements have been built. They embody the spirit of sharing, fostering a sense of camaraderie that drives collaborative efforts. Yet, as the software world advances and moves to cloud infrastructure, those same licenses turn from business enablers to threats to the company's business model.
In recent years, almost all successful open source pioneers have had to change their licenses to protect their businesses against unfair competition. MongoDB, CockroachLabs, Elastic, and now Hashicorp are all open source companies at their core. Those companies are not blind to the open source community. They are the open source community! But after seeing how their innovation is being used by others to compete against them, they had to push the red button and protect their business.
Changing the license is an extremely painful process for them and the community. Some contributors feel they were misled, and some communities split into disjointed groups of interests. Good press is never part of this change because no one will thank you for not allowing them to compete against you. But still, they chose to power through with the change. They are not trying to break open source; they are trying to fix it so they can continue to innovate in the open.
Traditional open source licenses, like the Apache License, seem ideal: "I share my code, you contribute back." While this sentiment is noble, it has revealed cracks in its sustainability as other companies can leverage these innovations without necessarily giving back to the project. The developers who laboriously craft these innovations often find themselves competing against their own technology with the backing of some of the largest corporations in the world.
To counter this, copyleft licenses like AGPL emerged. These licenses assert, "You can use my code if you share yours." However, this model limits usage as not all companies can share their code. It doesn't even completely eliminate the issue of unfair competition. This isn't a true solution, but rather a patch that went wrong.
Enter the BSL licensing model – an evolution guided by the belief that open source can flourish while fostering sustainable businesses. BSL is not just about sharing code; it's about striking a balance. It states, "I share my code, you can use it for free however you want as long as you do not compete with me." This balance addresses both the community foundation of open source and the reality of business.
Take the open-core model as an example. In open-core, only a limited set of value and functionality of the product is released as open source, while much of the value is kept closed in order for the company to monetize it. With BSL, SaaS companies can make all of the value of their product open, and it can be fully used for free for 99.9% of the use cases. It only restricts commercial usage by direct competition, and only for a few years. This challenges us to reconsider what openness truly means. Is it about unrestricted usage or about enabling open innovation for most while ensuring the sustainability of the business?
In my opinion, this is what progress looks like. You start with a great idea, and then you continue to iterate to make it better. The open source community is just getting larger and more sustainable as a result. The ultimate winner of this evolution in open source is the developer community. BSL licenses allow more companies to make their innovations open, and to invest more in their open innovations, benefiting all of us in the developer ecosystem.
Long live open source!