The debate on whether the GPL is going the way of the dodo or not is still raging, in a way similar to the one on open core – not surprisingly, since they are both related to similar aspects, that intermingle technical and emotional aspects. A recent post from BlackDuck indicates that (on some metric, not very well specified unfortunately) the GPLv2 for the first time dropped below 50%; while Amy Stephen points out that the GPLv2 is used in 55% of the new projects (with the LGPL at 10%), something that is comparable to the results that we found in FLOSSMETRICS for the stable projects. Why such a storm? The reason is partly related to a strong association of the GPL with a specific political and ethical stance (an association that is, in my view, negative in the long term), and partly because the GPL is considered to be antithetic to so-called “open core” models, where less invasive licenses (like the Apache or Eclipse licenses) are considered to be more appropriate.
First of all, the “open core” debate is mostly moot: the “new” open core is quite different from the initial, “free demo” approach (as magistrally exemplified by Eric Barroca of Nuxeo). While in the past the open core model was basically to present a half-solution barely usable for testing now open core means a combination of services and (little) added code, like the new approach taken by Alfresco – that in the past I would have probably classified in the ITSM class (installation/training/support/maintenance, in recent report rechristened as “product specialist). Read as an example the post from John Newton, describing Alfresco approach:
- We must insure that customers using our enterprise version are not locked into that choice and that open source is available to them. To that end, the core system and interfaces will remain 100% open source.
- We will provide service and customer support that provides insurance that systems will run as expected and correct problems according our promised Service Level Agreement
- Enterprise customers will receive fixes as a priority, but that we will make these fixes available in the next labs release. Bugs fixed by the community are delivered to the community as a priority.
- We will provide extensions and integrations to proprietary systems to which customers are charged. It is fair for us to charge and include this in an enterprise release as well.
- Extensions and integrations to ubiquitous proprietary systems, such as Windows and Office, will be completely open source.
- Extensions that are useful to monitor or run a system in a scaled or production environment, such as system monitoring, administration and high availability, are fair to put into an enterprise release.”
The new “open core” is really a mix of services, including enhanced documentation and training materials, SLA-backed support, stability testing and much more. In this new model, the GPL is not a barrier in any way, and can be used to implement such a model without additional difficulties. The move towards services also explains why despite the claim that open core models are the preferred monetization strategies, our work in FLOSSMETRICS found that only 19% of the companies surveyed used such a model, a number that is consistent with the 23.7% found by the 451 group, despite the claim that “Open Core becomes the default business model”. The reality is that the first implementation of open core was seriously flawed; for several reasons:
“The model has the intrinsic downside that the FLOSS product must be valuable to be attractive for the users, but must also be not complete enough to prevent competition with the commercial one. This balance is difficult to achieve and maintain over time; also, if the software is of large interest, developers may try to complete the missing functionality in a purely open source way, thus reducing the attractiveness of the commercial version.”
and, from Matthew Aslett:
I previously noted that with the Open-Core approach the open source disruptor is disrupted by its own disruption and that in the context of Christensen’s law of Conservation of Attractive Profits it is probably easier in the long-term to generate profit from adjacent proprietary products than it is to generate profit from proprietary features deployed on top of the commoditized product.
In the process of selecting a business model, then, the GPL is not a barrier in adopting this new style of open core model, and certainly creates a barrier for potential freeriding by competitors, something that was for example recognized by SpringSource (that adopted for most of their products the Apache license):
The GPL is well understood by the market and the legal community and has notable precedents such as MySQL, Java and the Linux kernel as GPL licensed projects. The GPL ensures that the software remains open and that companies do not take our products and sell against us in the marketplace. If this happened, we would not be able to sufficiently invest in the project and everyone would suffer.
The GPL family, at the moment, has the advantage that the majority of packages are licensed under one of such licenses, making compatibility checking easier; also, there is an higher probability of finding a GPL (v2, v3, AGPL, LGPL) package to improve than starting for scratch – and this should also guarantee that in the future the license mix will probably continue to be oriented towards copyleft-style restrictions. Of course, there will be a movement towards the GPLv3 (reducing the GPLv2 share, especially for new projects) but as a collective group the percentages will remain more or less similar.
This is not to say that the GPL is perfect: on the contrary, the text (even in the v3 edition) lacks clarity on derivative works, has been bent too much to accommodate anti-tivoization clauses (that contributed to a general lack of readability of the text) and lacks a worldwide vision (something that the EUPL has added). In terms of community and widespread adoption the GPL can be less effective as a tool for creating widespread platform usage; the EPL or the Apache license may be more appropriate for this role, and this because the FSF simply has not created a license that fullfills the same role (this time, for political reasons).
What I hope is that more companies start the adoption process, under the license that allows them to be commercially sustainable and thriving. The wrong choice way hamper growth and adoption, or may limit the choice of the most appropriate business model. The increase in adoption will also trigger what Matthew Aslett mentioned as the fifth stage of evolution (still partially undecided). I am a strong believer that there will be a move toward consortia-managed projects, something similar to what Matthew calls “the embedded age”; the availability of neutral third-party networks increase the probability and quality of contributions, in a way similar to the highly successful Eclipse foundation.