The Commons Clause will destroy open source

Published 2018-08-22 on Drew DeVault's blog

An alarmist title, I know, but it’s true. If the Commons clause were to be adopted by all open source projects, they would cease to be open source1, and therefore the Commons clause is trying to destroy open source. When this first appeared I spoke out about it in discussion threads around the net, but didn’t think anyone would take it seriously. Well, yesterday, some parts of Redis became proprietary software.

The Commons Clause promoted by Kevin Wang presents one of the greatest existential threats to open source I’ve ever seen. It preys on a vulnerability open source maintainers all suffer from, and one I can strongly relate to. It sucks to not be able to make money from your open source work. It really sucks when companies are using your work to make money for themselves. If a solution presents itself, it’s tempting to jump at it. But the Commons Clause doesn’t present a solution for supporting open source software. It presents a framework for turning open source software into proprietary software.

What should we do about open source maintainers not getting the funding they need? It’s a very real problem, and one Kevin has explicitly asked us to talk about before we criticise his solution to it. I would be happy to share my thoughts. I’ve struggled for many years to find a way to finance myself as the maintainer of many dozens of projects. For a long time it has been a demotivating struggle with no clear solutions, a struggle which at one point probably left me vulnerable to the temptations offered by the Common Clause. But today, the situation is clearly improving.

Personally, I have a harder go of it because very little of my open source software is appealing to the businesses that have the budget to sponsor them. Instead, I rely on the (much smaller and less stable) recurring donations of my individual users. When I started accepting these, I did not think that it was going to work out. But today, I’m making far more money from these donations than I ever thought possible2, and I see an upwards trend which will eventually lead me to being able to work on open source full time. If I were able to add only a few business-level sponsorships to this equation, I think I would easily have already reached my goals.

There are other options for securing financing for open source, some of which Redis has already been exploring. Selling a hosted and supported version of your service is often a good call. Offering consulting support for your software has also worked for many groups in the past. Some projects succeed with (A)GPL for everyone and BSD for a price. These are all better avenues to explore - making your software proprietary is a tragic alternative that should not be considered.

We need to combine these methods with a greater appreciation for open source in the business community. Businesses need engineers - appeal to your peers so they can appeal to the money on behalf of the projects they depend on. A $250/mo recurring donation to would be a drop in the bucket of most businesses, but a major boon to any open source project, with which the business will almost certainly see tangible value-add as a result. When I get to work today I’m going to identify open source projects we use that accept donations and make the plea3, and keep making the plea week over week until money is spent. You should, too.

Redis also stands out as a cautionary entry in the history of Contributor License Agreements. Everyone who has contributed to the now-proprietary Redis modules has had their hard work stolen and sold by RedisLabs under a proprietary license. I do not sign CLAs and I think they’re a harmful practice for this very reason. Asking a contributor to sign them is a slap in the face to the good will which led them to make a contribution in the first place. Don’t sign these and don’t ask others to.

I respect antirez4 very much, but I am sorely disappointed in him. He should have known better and, if you’re reading this, I urge you to roll back your misguided decision. But the Commons Clause is much more deeply disturbing. What Kevin is doing will ruin open source software, maybe for good5.

I really appreciate some of Kevin’s work. FOSSA is a really cool tool that can stand to provide some serious value to the open source community. TL;DR Legal is a fantastic tool which has already delivered a tremendous amount of value to open source, and I’ve personally referenced it dozens of times. Thank you, honestly, for your work on improving the legal landscape of open source. With Commons Clause, however, Kevin has taken it too far. The four freedoms are important. The only solution is to bury the Common Clause project. Kill the website and GitHub repository, and we can try to forget this ever happened.

I understand that turning back is going to be hard, which scares me. I know that Kevin has already put a lot of effort into it and convinced himself that it’s the Right Thing To Do. It takes work to write the clause, vet it for legal issues, design a website (a beautiful one, I’ll give you that), and to promote it among your target audience. I know how hard it is to distance yourself from something you’ve staked your personal reputation on. You had only the best intentions6, Kevin, but please step back from the ego and do the right thing - take this down. You stand to undo all of your hard work for the open source community in one fell swoop with this initiative. I’m begging you, stop while it’s not too late.

Man, two angry articles in a row. I have more technical articles coming up, I promise.


Update 2018-08-23 03:00 UTC: Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation reached out asking me to clarify the use of “open source” in this article. I have refered to the FSF’s document on essential freedoms as a definition of “open source”. In fact, it is the definition of free software - a distinct concept. The FSF does not advocate for open source software, but particularly for free (or “libre”) software, of which there is some intersection with open source software. For more information on the difference, refer to Richard’s article on the subject.

  1. Under both the OSI and FSF definitions. The Commons Clause removes freedom 0 of the four essential freedoms

  2. Figures here 

  3. I intend to do an audit, but I have always (and I encourage you to always) kept an eye on the stuff we use as I come across it, looking for opportunities to donate. 

  4. The maintainer of Redis 

  5. As software gets abandoned, making the license more permissive is the last thing on the maintainer’s minds. So as the body of Commons Clause software grows, the graveyard will only ever fill. 

  6. Honestly, this is a real problem that open source suffers from and I really appreciate the attempt to fix it, misguided as it may have been. But this is not okay, and Kevin needs to recognize the gravity of his mistake and move to correct it. 


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