“Open source” is one of the concepts that is widely used and at the same time is widely misunderstood.

I think that is misunderstanding, not injustice leads to wave of frustration every time next company make a switch from Open Source Licence to Business Source License. HashiCorp, Confluent, Elastic, Redis and others did prioritize their business with Business Source License move.

Do they being greedy? No. They just make money, as business suppose to do.

So, if we turn focus from the business and ask ourselves, developers: “Do we have enough knowledge about Intellectual property?” I would say - “No, I definitely not”. And that is not surprising, because Intellectual property Law is its own enormous thing.

When reading the GNU Library Public Licence I realized I do not understand half of the text, and needed to go over some passages several times. When talking to people on meetups or listening to the podcasts I realised that others are confused too.

Some of the common misconceptions were:

  • Open source code does not have a licence
  • Source available code can be used the same way as Open source
  • Author of the code in Open Source always own it

Small disclaimer: This article is more of an attempt to highlight confusion points, not clarify everything about Open Source Licencing.

So, what is a licence anyway?

Simplified, License is the legal way a copyright owner grants permission to others to use his/her intellectual property.

Copyright protects only the expression of that idea. A copyright comes into force when the protected work is created.

What is Open Source License?

Short definition from Open Source Initiative’s website:

Open source licenses are licenses that comply with the Open Source Definition – in brief, they allow software to be freely used, modified, and shared. To be approved by the Open Source Initiative (also known as the OSI) a license must go through the Open Source Initiative’s license review process.

Open source is not really a legal term. It is not illegal to name something Open Source even if it is not, but it is illegal to violate the licence. So, we should read licenses very carefully.

Source available vs Open source

Business Source License (BSL) is an alternative to closed source or open core licensing models. Under BSL, the source code is always publicly available. Non-production use of the code is always free, and the licensor can also make an Additional Use Grant allowing limited production use.

Thus, basically, BSL can mean anything. From only registration to paying fee per user, processor core, etc. The main thing about BSL that it is not an Open source license because it does not meet Open Source Definition. And it is not a concrete Licence, it is a template. So reading carefully applies here too.

When we talk about relicensing, Open source project does need agreements from all the contributors to do so, unless Project owns the copyrights in contributions made to them.

And that has been the Greatest confusion for me - Contributors licence. In many cases identical licenses are used for contributions and for the project’s derivative works. I have never seen full clear legal description on Open Source projects web pages. It is almost impossible to find out who is copyright holder is or when copyright assignment happening, if that is happening. But in cases of relicencing it is clear that copyright holder was Foundation or Company behind the Open Source project. In my opinion it is very important to understand what you’re being asked to give away when contributing to Open Source project.

I am still confused with the question: Why if Open source so “Open”, I can not find the copyright holder easily? People contribute to Open Source projects whose goals and values they share. And one of those values should be transparency. My expectations are that Open Source projects are more open. In ideal world…

In the real world however developers should invest time into understanding Intellectual Property better to protect their work, to respect work of the others and not to over-romanticise community-supported software.

  1. The Open Source Definition by Open Source Initiative.
  2. Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law by Lawrence Rosen.