Licenses Are Not Business Models

Fedora shaded cupcakesThere has been a lot of discussion about the relationship between open source and business of late. The rise of “hybrid licenses” designed to prevent mega-users like cloud providers from mass distributing and supporting open source software, thus depriving the software’s stewarding vendors of potential revenue, has generated a lot of content.

A personal favorite of mine is my colleague Tom Callaway’s May 4 “cupcake” Twitter thread, where delicious confectioneries are used to explain how these new licenses are supposed to work and why the open source community at large are up in arms about these new approaches.

Another, less metaphorical, analysis was published back in September by RedMonk analyst Stephen O’Grady. O’Grady lays out the history of how open source and free software licenses have approached the conundrum of cloud providers and what license riders like the Commons Clause are trying to do to solve the problem.

It has become a bit of running joke on social media that O’Grady, a solid expert on this issue, has had to repeatedly post new analyses on this topic, every time a vendor comes out with a new hybrid license. That’s not quite true, but O’Grady has been prolific:

O’Grady is not the only one putting forth well-written treatise on the subject of these hybrid licenses. IBM’s James Bottomley posted a really strong article¬†about it on the Open Source Initiative’s blog not too long ago, where he emphatically and clearly explains why most people who work in open source have been saying all along: open source is not about doing business, it’s about making something.

This is Red Hat’s whole basic premise: we are not using open source licenses as business models. We are using open source software and building a business model around it. In our model, we give you the software and if you need support, training, or integration help, we ask for a fair price in getting that done for you. We do this because we are actively involved in the creation and collaboration of the software itself.

We don’t tell you how to use that software, and there is nothing in our licensing that prevents users from taking our “commercial” software and re-distributing it as their own. That’s how projects like CentOS got started and are still going: direct copies of our Red Hat Enterprise Linux product. And we don’t “control” who can leverage our upstreams, either. oVirt has a Red Hat Virtualization downstream, but also commercial downstreams from Intel’s Wind River division, the Chinese virtual desktop interface provider Cloud Times, and, just recently, Oracle.

Do these other projects and products make things challenging for our sales teams? They would, if we were selling software. But we are selling us. Our talent, our knowledge, our skill. Code is great and we are happy to be a part of all of the projects in which we collaborate–but it is not the most valuable thing in our business or our communities.

(Photo by Jenn Sterling, under CC BY-ND 2.0)

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About Brian Proffitt

Brian is a Senior Principal Community Architect for the Red Hat Open Source Program Office, responsible for community content, onboarding, and open source consulting. Brian also serves on the governing board for Project CHAOSS, a metrics-oriented approach to ascertaining community health. A former technology journalist, Brian is also a graduate lecturer at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @TheTechScribe.

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