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AWS has been doing things that are 'just NOT OK since 2015,' says Elastic as firm yanks Apache 2.0 licence

So are ya open source or aren't ya?

Elastic CEO and co-founder Shay Banon has attacked AWS for what he claims is unacceptable use of the open-source Elasticsearch product and trademark.

Banon's post is part of the company's defence of its decision to drop the open-source Apache 2.0 licence for its ElasticSearch and Kibana products and instead use the copyleft SSPL or restrictive Elastic licence – though the plan is to add provisions to mitigate this by having code revert to the Apache 2.0 licence after a period of up to five years.

The new rant makes explicit that the purpose of the licence change is to make it harder for AWS to use Elastic's code. According to Banon, AWS has been "doing things that we think are just NOT OK since 2015." Banon said that "we've tried every avenue available including going through the courts," presumably a reference to this lawsuit [PDF], the outcome of which is not yet determined.

Banon wants to prevent "companies from taking our Elasticsearch and Kibana products and providing them directly as a service without collaborating with us." The issue is not clear-cut, though, since permissive open-source licences like Apache 2.0 specifically include the right to modify and distribute the product.

The company has also protected its investment by releasing some features only under the Elastic licence. Elasticsearch is based on Apache Lucene so Elastic itself is vulnerable to accusations of benefiting from open source while now trying to lock down its products for commercial advantage.

The Elasticsearch trademark is another matter, and Banon also claims that AWS has not been honest with customers about its fork called Open Distro for Elasticsearch, which underlies the Amazon Elasticsearch Service. AWS CTO Werner Vogels announced this on Twitter with a now-deleted tweet calling it "a great partnership between @elastic and AWS." According to Banon, there was no collaboration.

"Over the years, we have heard repeatedly that this confusion persists," Banon said. He also claimed that proprietary features in Elasticsearch are "serving as 'inspiration' for Amazon."

In March 2019, Adrian Cockcroft, Amazon's VP of cloud architecture strategy, said that the motivation for the Open Distro for Elasticsearch was that "since June 2018, we have witnessed significant intermingling of proprietary code into the code base" and complained about "an extreme lack of clarity as to what customers who care about open source are getting and what they can depend on." According to Cockcroft, AWS offered "significant resources" to support a community version of Elasticsearch but this was refused. "The whole idea of open source is that multiple users and companies can put it to work and everyone can contribute to its improvement," he said.

In February 2020, AWS added security features to its Elasticsearch service, in partnership with Floragunn GmbH, whose Search Guard product is a third-party security add-on for Elasticsearch. Floragunn's product is also subject of litigation [PDF] from Elastic, which claims in the court filing that it is a "knowing and willful infringement of Elastic's copyright in the source code for Elastic's X-Pack software."

Andi Gutmans, VP of analytics and ElastiCache at AWS, said in the same month last year: "We want to make the community aware that AWS performed our own due diligence prior to partnering with Floragunn and found no evidence that Search Guard misappropriated any copyrighted material." He added that "this kind of behavior is misaligned with the spirit of open source."

Yestrday, Charlie Hull, co-founder of UK open-source search consultancy Flax, said: "Although Elasticsearch creator Shay Banon is always at pains to point out his personal commitment to 'open,' what that means in practice has shifted several times as his company has grown, taken investment and gone public. Elastic's actions over the years, such as deliberately mixing Apache 2 and Elastic licensed code, have shown it was shifting away from a true open source model."

According to Hull, Elastic's new terms are unlikely to affect third-party services that do not directly expose Elasticsearch, such as a library book search. But he did add that "the boundaries of what constitutes a 'Prohibited SaaS Offering' are not entirely clear," and that "those considering Elasticsearch for new projects will have to consider how important they regard the freedoms of a true open source license and perhaps examine alternatives."

Linux developer Drew DeVault said of the licence change: "Elasticsearch belongs to its 1,573 contributors, who retain their copyright, and granted Elastic a license to distribute their work without restriction... Elastic has spit in the face of every single one of 1,573 contributors, and everyone who gave Elastic their trust, loyalty, and patronage. This is an Oracle-level move."

James Governor, analyst at Redmonk, told us: "AWS is an incredibly strong competitor. It has sharp elbows. It is also the greatest software distribution mechanism ever created, superseding the previous greatest software distribution mechanism ever created, namely open source. In some cases third parties would like to take advantage of AWS as a distribution mechanism, but without letting it compete on the basis of the services it provides, which creates some interesting conflicts regarding what open source is, and what open source is for. As Shay Banon himself says, he is happy with his relationship with some parts of AWS." ®

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