Open Source is Dead: Understanding the HashiCorp License Controversy

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Dramatic title, I know. Now here’s why that’s NOT true:

HashiCorp's controversial switch from open source to "source-available" licensing has reignited debates on open-source sustainability and business models. Amidst the backdrop of open source's rich history, the tech community remains vigilant, advocating for collaborative digital futures. This shift underscores the evolving landscape of software licensing in the industry.

Open Source Is Evolving

In the digital age, the backbone of the modern world, from smartphones to cloud computing, is powered by open-source software. This software, often crafted by a global community of developers, finds its way into commercial products, generating millions, if not billions, for parent companies. But to truly understand the recent controversies surrounding open source, we need to delve into its rich history and understand the challenges faced by Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) in the open source ecosystem.

A Brief History of Open Source

Before "open source" was even coined, there was a movement towards free software. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Richard Stallman, frustrated by the shift towards proprietary software, launched the GNU Project. By 1989, the first version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) was released, introducing the "copyleft" approach, and ensuring software freedom was preserved. The 1990s saw the birth of the Linux kernel by Linus Torvalds, and with the GNU system, a fully free and open operating system: GNU/Linux was formed. The term "open source" emerged, and the Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded in 1998, emphasizing not just access to source code, but also the freedom to modify and distribute it.

The ISV Challenge in the Open Source Landscape

Historically, open source software (OSS) has been dominant in horizontal domains such as Internet applications. Mature projects today, like Linux and Apache, are infrastructure or platform software. ISVs often develop their applications on top of OSS platform software. However, these OSS components sometimes don't meet the ISV's requirements, leading to modifications or the addition of "glue code" to make components work together. This creates a customized version of the OSS component, presenting ISVs with the challenge of maintaining this derived version and deciding how to handle these extensions and modifications.

Although it's in the ISV's interest to contribute modifications back to the community, several issues prevent this, surpassing the question of sharing intellectual property.

The HashiCorp Controversy

Fast forward to today, and we see companies like HashiCorp, creators of Terraform, making headlines by switching from open-source to "source-available" licenses. HashiCorp's move from the Mozilla Public License v2.0 (MPL 2.0) to the Business Source License (BSL) v1.1 was met with significant backlash. This isn't an isolated incident. Companies are grappling with the challenge of balancing the open-source ethos with business sustainability.

The underlying issue? Major cloud providers capitalize on freely available code, often without giving back. This tension led to the birth of OpenTF, a fork of Terraform, and the publication of the OpenTF Manifesto, emphasizing the importance of keeping essential software truly open source.

The Future of Open Source

The future of open source is not just about the code; it's about the community and the shared vision of a collaborative and open digital future. As more applications rely on open-source components, developers face challenges in managing their dependencies and ensuring security. Over 90% of application components come from open source, and the average application contains 128 open-source dependencies.

We need to get this right, not to “save open source”, but to ensure that critical infrastructures that were built on it don’t fail.

Open source will continue to evolve, and its legacy remains strong. The swift response of the community, as seen with the OpenTF Manifesto, is a testament to the resilience and passion of open-source advocates. As the industry evolves, so too will the models that support it. Companies will need to find a balance between protecting their interests and supporting the open-source ethos that has driven so much of the digital revolution.

XKCD on Open Source

XKCD on Open Source

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