Use copyleft licenses for open source or life with the consequences

·3 min·Andreas Haerter·

A good open-source license allows reuse of source code while retaining copyright. But you should also think about copyleft when starting a open-source project or company.

Licenses like the General Public License (GPL) are usually better for the open-source ecosystem than permissive ones like Apache 2 or MIT as they require that any modifications or derivative works are shared, promoting a cycle of continuous contributions and improvements. Enhancements are distributed, benefiting the entire community rather than allowing the exploitation of open source code without giving back (looking at you, Amazon Web Services).

Hypergrowth < Community

Licenses like the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL) might prevent some corporations from using an open-source project because they do not want to release the source code of their own modifications to it. Sadly, corporate compliance often prohibits the usage of copyleft projects altogether, even if nobody plans to modify anything. Especially the legal departments of large “enterprizy” organizations often prefer software with licenses like MIT as they want it simple and “risk”-free.

In light of license changes, the impression comes to mind that many start-ups use open source not because of freedom but as an argument for adoption in the enterprise ecosystem. They avoid choosing (A)GPLv3 licenses to facilitate easier corporate adoption without generating enough revenue, while being funded by venture capital and without getting contributions back by organization who could easily afford giving back something. Then, after being adopted, they complain.

While the open-source contributions from corporations like HashiCorp are impressive, the overall situation is complex. There’s a reason why Linux (GPL licensed) is still around, growing, and making money for so many while companies behind widespread open source projects often fail financially and burning insane amounts of money. It might work out for individuals and owners when getting bought, but it hurts users and ecosystems who relied on something.

Your SaaS will not compete against AWS or internal IT staff

So don’t be surprised if licenses like MIT attract large corporations and users who don’t care about you or the community, making it difficult to find fair cooperation (including financial resources) with them later. Stick with a real, copyleft license that has less adoption by other enterprises and focus on organic growth with people who care about the project.

Alternatively, be prepared for the consequences that Amazon or other hyperscalers will attract a large number of customers using your product without giving anything back—as you stated that’s OK by using e.g the MIT license.

If you still want to go that route, you must establish another source of income right away. One has to be realistic: Competing with your open-source product’s own SaaS against any SaaS by Amazon or other hyperscalers—or even the well-trained on-premises operations team—will not work out if that’s your only way to make money. Services that support users in operating in-house or enabling paid development (e.g., prioritizing features for a fee) are also possible with open source and are the better choice.