It turns out that selling open source software is really, really hard. So hard, in fact, that only one company has proven the ability to do so profitably at scale: Red Hat. Everyone else is either swimming in red ink or a rounding error.
Hence, it’s not surprising that MariaDB, which billed itself as the freedom-loving antidote to Oracle-owned MySQL, has revealed that (GASP!!!) it, too, loves a proprietary license now and then. Specifically, the erstwhile open source company is releasing its MaxScale database proxy software under the Business Software License, which basically says that any significant use of the software requires payment, as Simon Phipps catalogues.
If an ardent advocate of openness can make this shift, make no mistake: Any company can. Why? Because companies exist to make money. For those looking for neverending software freedom, the only real option is foundation-led software projects.
Not just any foundation will do
Slapping a foundation sticker on an open source project doesn’t necessarily make it “open.” As I’ve detailed, far too many open source foundations are simply facades for their sponsoring companies to feign openness for the marketing benefits, all while retaining effective control over the underlying project. This kind of foundation-washing is no guarantee of source code freedom.
In fact, as Apache Software Foundation board member Jim Jagielski opines, the MariaDB/MaxScale licensing kerfuffle demonstrates “how utterly useless a non-truly-independent foundation really is.” Because, of course, MariaDB has a foundation (who doesn’t these days?), one designed to ensure “continuity and open collaboration in the MariaDB ecosystem” so that “the community can always rely upon MariaDB.”
Except, of course, when it can’t.
Not that this shift in strategy is a complete surprise. Simon Phipps, former president of the MariaDB Foundation, quit in 2014. As he told me, “I quit as soon as it was obvious the company was not going to allow an independent foundation,” apparent because “they bought the trademark.”
Words, words, words
Without that independent foundation, it really doesn’t matter what bold statements an open source project’s founder or committers may say. Take Monty Widenius’ assertions that MariaDB would always be open:
I personally have no plans or desire to develop any closed source extensions. This should be very clear if you read the hacking business model for Monty Program Ab, including our public promises where we say that everything we at Monty Program Ab produces is open source….
I am not working on MariaDB/MySQL to make money. I am just trying to save the product that I created so that it can continue to be available and affordable for all!
That was 2009, and much has changed in the last few years including, apparently, Widenius’ plans to make money. It’s hard to make money with software you give away. The only real alternatives are: To be Red Hat or to sell services based on software. I’ve argued that the latter course is by far the wiser approach (following Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), as it creates incentives for companies to give away their underlying software as they seek to attract developer talent and build out an ecosystem.
For everyone else, there’s a constant temptation to close off software to help pay the bills. For those who begrudge a company and this desire to make money, the only real option is to source software from truly open, foundation-led projects. Linux is run like this, as are the Apache projects. If your chosen open source software doesn’t follow this model, don’t be surprised when you wake up to find your open source software is not so open source.