Open Source

Fair Source licensing is the worst thing to happen to open source-definitely maybe

Fair Source attempts to bastardize open source to ensure companies get paid.

Image: iStockphoto/StockRocket

Fair Source...what a complete and utter waste.

Don't know what Fair Source is? On the one hand, you needn't bother learning, because it's unlikely to ever be more than the merest ripple in Wired, and then will rightly retreat into oblivion where it belongs.

SEE: Transitioning from Windows to Linux Administration: A guide for newcomers (Tech Pro Research)

On the other hand, it's worth highlighting yet another attempt by pseudo-open source advocates to resist the future (and present) of software licensing, simply so we can see just how wrongheaded Fair Source is in a world gone cloud.

Everything you never wanted to know about Fair Source

So, what is Fair Source? According to the website:

Not open source. Not closed source. The Fair Source License allows everyone to see the source code and makes the software free to use for a limited number of users in your organization. It offers some of the benefits of open source while preserving the ability to charge for the software.

This seems true, but is actually false. Fair Source really offers none of the benefits of open source precisely because of that "ability to charge for the software." While free software licensing (e.g., GNU General Public License) attempts to force freedom on downstream developers, true open source basically says, "Take this software, use it and improve it (or not), and license the resulting product as you wish."

Fair Source says, in essence, "You have all the rights of open source until your derivative work is actually popular. At that point you must pay." In other words, if your software stinks and no one wants to use it, hurray! It's open for usage, redistribution, and modification. But, once it crosses an arbitrary threshold of popularity, the doors come clanging shut and you lose those rights unless you pay.

In short, Fair Source is the worst of all words, because it introduces unnecessary complexity into the licensing process, none of which is intended to benefit developers.

One of the primary reasons that Apache-style open-source licensing has clearly won out over the GPL is because of its clarity for and freedom to developers. Developers don't want to be bothered with licensing uncertainty. So, to Sourcegraph's CEO who claims "It's better to be 90% open than 10% open," I'd respond, "No, it's really not. Both are lame. Go open or go closed, but don't confuse developers with a Milquetoast version of open source."

Imagine a developer telling her boss, "Yes, we're going to totally use this software until our product is popular and then we'll rip out essential pieces of code and replace them." Non-starter.

But that's not the only reason Fair Source is a deal killer.

This cloud thing seems real

For some bizarro reason, open source companies keep trying to monetize software even as the rest of the world has moved on. In the Wired article it highlights companies like Sourcegraph, DataDuck, Codeenvy, and Gitlab as companies that have embraced Fair Source-style licensing, but there are others that attempt to use restrictive versions of free source licenses (AGPL, for example) to force companies into buying their way out of an otherwise radioactive license.

All are misguided, because all of these are effectively attempts to sell software to a world that no longer wants to buy software.

As Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady correctly points out, "sales of software generally have been on a downward trajectory over the past decade or more." He continues: "[W]hen you look across industries, at company after company, the overall trendline is clear: it's harder to make money from software than it used to be—regardless of whether the model employed is volume or margin, open or closed."

Down. Down. Down.

What keeps going up, by contrast, is cloud-based services. Think Amazon Web Services ($7.3 billion and counting), of course, but also Facebook, Google, and Netflix. Interestingly, because these companies make money by selling services based on software, they can afford to give huge quantities of it away. As open source. For free.

SEE: Red Hat becomes first $2b open-source company (ZDNet)

There is no money in (selling) open source, as I've argued many times. There is, however, a mountain of cash waiting for those that monetize open source indirectly through support/software services like Red Hat, and even more for those that don't sell software-related services at all.

So, Fair Source advocates...give it up. It's the wrong way to treat developers, and it's the wrong way to treat yourselves. Fair Source is an attempt to resurrect yesterday's software licensing model in a world that has gone open source and cloud. Time to move on.

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    About Matt Asay

    Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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