It's not okay to pretend your software is open source

Published 2018-10-30 on Drew DeVault's blog

Unfortunately, I find myself writing about the Commons Clause again. For those not in the know, the Commons Clause is an addendum designed to be added to free software licenses. The restrictions it imposes (you cannot sell the software) makes the resulting franken-license nonfree. I’m not going to link to the project which brought this subject back into the discussion - they don’t deserve the referral - but the continued proliferation of software using the Commons Clause gives me reason to speak out against it some more.

One of my largest complaints with the Commons Clause is that it hijacks language used by open source projects to proliferate nonfree software, and encourages software using it to do the same. Instead of being a new software license, it tries to stick itself onto other respected licences - often the Apache 2.0 license. The name, “Commons Clause”, is also disingenuous, hijacking language used by respected entities like Creative Commons. In truth, the Commons Clause serves to remove software from the commons1. Combining these problems gives you language like “Apache+Commons Clause”, which is easily confused with Apache Commons.

Projects using the Commons Clause have also been known to describe their license as “permissive” or “open”, some even calling their software “open source”. This is dishonest. FOSS refers to “free and open source software”. The former, free software, is defined by the free software definition, published by GNU. The latter, open source software, is defined by the open source definition, published by the OSI. Their definitions are very similar, and nearly all FOSS licenses qualify under both definitions. These are unambiguous, basic criteria which protects developers, contributors, and users of free and open source software. These definitions are so basic, important and well-respected that dismissing them is akin to dismissing climate change.

Claiming your software is open source, permissively licensed, free software, etc, when you use the Commons Clause, is lying. These lies are pervasive among users of the Commons Clause. The page listing Redis Modules, for example, states that only software under an OSI-approved license is listed. Six of the modules there are using nonfree licenses, and antirez seems content to ignore the problem until we forget about it. They’re in for a long wait - we’re not going to forget about shady, dishonest, and unethical companies like Redis Labs.

I don’t use nonfree software2, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to make nonfree software. You have every right to license your work in any way you choose. However, if you choose not to use a FOSS license, you need to own up to it. Don’t pretend that your software is something it’s not. There are many benefits to being a member of the free software community, but you are not entitled to them if your software isn’t. This behavior has to stop.

Finally, I have some praise to offer. Dgraph was briefly licensed under Apache plus the Commons Clause, and had the sort of misleading and false information this article decries on their marketing website, docs, and so on. However, they’ve rolled it back, and Dgraph is now using the Apache 2.0 license with no modifications. Thank you!

  1. This is why I often refer to it as the “Anti-Commons Clause”, though I felt that was a bit too Stallman-esque for this article. 

  2. Free as in freedom, not as in free beer.