Thought experiment: If a corporation finds a way to reach massive levels of revenue by using Moodle, without contributing to its open source development in any capacity, should Moodle reconsider the way it licenses its software?
This is the situation MongoDB and Redis found themselves in, when they realized big tech were profiting big time from free software, without “properly contributing to its upkeep“. A delicate situation with hard questions to face. Amazon and Alibaba are not doing anything illegal. Should they be punished for being in a better position to make profits off of free tech? If they did not expect this to happen, what were they hoping for the organizations using their software? Is open source ultimately compromised without Big Tech’s gratuituosness? Interestingly enough, the “freedom originalists” seem to be on Amazon’s side on this one: Free is free, period, not “free as long as.”
There are many reasons why companies decide to offer open source technologies. For the most part, they fit in a scale from at-core ideological, to strategic and capitalistic. Which does not mean it is easy to figure out where a particular organization stands, or where it should be. There are also several distortions to be aware of. An exemplary company can realize their take on open source is not ideal, years after the fact. Or it can claim to be “opener” than it actually is.
Then there is the reverse relationship: A company can build profitable businesses by co-opting open source technologies. To an extent, every current tech company is guilty of this. If the word ‘guilt’ is an indictment or not it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Open source technologies also fit in the very popular startup narrative about how “competition is for losers.” At the beginning, setting up as little barriers as possible is almost mandatory to gain any traction from consumers, and in the case of software, from developers and engineers. After a certain size, reasons abound.
Related big business of open source news
IBM has acquired Red Hat, perhaps the most successful example of open source business, for a record-breaking sum. On top of good old free Linux, Red Hat’s “critical enterprise-grade” solutions are the backbone of industries like finance, aviation and telco. Of course, hardcore Linux fans aren’t too happy about it, while IBM stockholders aren’t thrilled by the $34 billion price tag. Official press release.
Is Berners Lee in the pocket of Big Tech? It was kind of fun that each new statement by the creator of the World Wide Web drew controversy and led everyone to choose sides. So when his proposal of a “contract for the web” is so easily adopted by Facebook and Google, eyebrows are raised.
More on voluntary contracts. Coraline Ada Ehmke’s Code of Conduct for Open Source Projects (aka the Contributor Covenant) is gaining attention, and lots of prominent organizations have pledged to support a more hospitable environment for women and minorities. This follows Linux creator, Linus Torvald’s time-off after acknowledging instances of systemic hostility and lack of professionalism; and Google employees demonstrations against sexual misconduct in the workplace.
More on Red Hat. This is the largest, but just the latest on an ongoing trend of corporations acquiring open source companies. For now they seem to be playing nice, but little seems left to be done in case they unilaterally change their minds.