The battle between open source and 'sort of' open source is as old as software

There's nothing new about HashiCorp leaving the principle behind

Opinion At the Linux Foundation Members Summit in Monterrey, California, topic number one was artificial intelligence and open source. Number two was about HashiCorp dumping Terraform's Mozilla Public License (MPL) for the Business Source License (BSL) 1.1, the resulting OpenTofu fork, and how ticked off HashiCorp CEO David McJannet was about the Linux Foundation's support of OpenTofu.

The switch, the fork, and the arguments over it all continue to be hot and furious. But one thing stands out to me. People are treating it like there's something new here. There's not.

This is far from the first or even the tenth time a company has taken open source code and either transformed it into a proprietary program or cloaked it in a proprietary wrapper.

First, people have long taken open source code, erased the license, and continued on their merry way. That's not necessarily stealing. Indeed, some licenses, like the MIT License and the two-clause BSD License, enable companies and developers to use their code in proprietary programs. For example, we all know such MIT programs like Angular, .NET, Node.js, Ruby on Rails, and React.

Then there are programs that started as open source, but their owners and licenses shifted the rules over time so that many people no longer even know that they were ever open source. Take, for example, Apple macOS.

What's that? You didn't know macOS was open source? Well, it was.

At its heart, macOS is based on Darwin, a Unix operating system. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he brought with him his NeXTStep Unix-based operating system. In 2000, Apple retired its Classic Mac operating system in favor of macOS Darwin. Besides NeXTStep, Darwin borrowed liberally from the open source FreeBSD and Mach operating system.

Today, if you dig deep enough, you can still find Darwin, under the Apple Public Source License 2.0 in macOS. There's still an effort afoot, PureDarwin, to make a standalone Darwin operating system, but it's come to little. Here, by design, Apple withered an important open source operating system on the vine. A far more common way for open source software to end up in a commercial program is open core. Now, open core, unlike open source, is a business model. In open core, a company starts with a free, open source version of a core program and then surrounds it with commercial versions or add-ons that are proprietary software.

Andrew Lampitt coined the term in 2008, but it wasn't new. He came up with it to replace the confusing phrase "dual licensing." The name change was "to remove confusion and promote a great business model for open source communities, paying customers, and vendors alike." It was also meant to remove the "bait and switch" controversies that we're now seeing with HashiCorp.

While we can argue whether it was a "great business model," there is no argument that it's been a very popular model. However, in recent years, we've seen businesses retreating from open core to source-available models. In source available, you can see all the code, you just can't change it or use it in some circumstances.

For example, MongoDB created the non-open source license, Server Side Public License (SSPL), to deal with hypercloud profiting from their code by offering self-hosted versions and services.

MongoDB wasn't the only one. Elastic did very well with open core, but when companies such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) made big bucks by offering ElasticSearch as a service, Elastic pivoted in 2021. It abandoned the open source Apache 2.0 license for the non-open source SSPL and Elastic license.

The idea here, and with other businesses such as Redis, was to block cloud companies from offering open source programs as a service. This ended up backfiring on Elastic as AWS forked the project. Does all this remind you of HashiCorp? It should.

While these moves to non-open licenses have ticked off some users and many developers, all of these companies continue to do relatively well. You may hate it, but the bottom line is it's been a somewhat successful move for these businesses.

But then there's the case of Red Hat restricting the use of its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) code to customers. For decades, Red Hat had to juggle being the open source champion while dealing with RHEL clones such as CentOS and, more recently, AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux.

Over time, Red Hat has grown increasingly reluctant to share its code with others. You can now argue, and many do, that Red Hat is no longer truly an open source company. Its critics say Red Hat may still adhere to the letter of the GNU General Public License (GPL), but not the spirit.

Be that as it may, while RHEL and its constellation of related programs continue to be very profitable, Red Hat wants to make even more money from it, so it, too, is shifting away from open source principles.

Indeed, that's what all these cases have in common: A desire for more money. The Bible says "the love of money is the root of all evil." I don't know about that, but I do know that the love of money and open source principles don't get along easily.

There's nothing wrong with making money from open source software. To quote Richard M Stallman: "There is nothing wrong with wanting pay for work, or seeking to maximize one's income, as long as one does not use means that are destructive." But, in RMS's view, "extracting money from users of a program by restricting their use of it is destructive."

While RMS's opinions aren't as popular as they once were when it comes to the modern intersection of open source software and business practices, he still has lots of supporters. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like