Monty Widenius, co-founder of MySQL and founder of MariaDB, just came to a surprise revelation: most people use open source for free. What's so surprising, however, is not this fact, but the idea that Widenius wouldn't have learned this 13 years ago when he first released MySQL under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and his company's revenues dropped 80%. The lesson here, however, isn't that there's no money in open-source software, but rather that some strategies for monetizing open source are effective, while others are not.
Monty Got A Raw Deal
For anyone that has been around open source for the past 10 years, hearing Widenius complain about open source free riders is irony at its finest. Widenius, after all, was a technical mastermind at MySQL, and was generally more concerned with MySQL's development community than making money, fighting efforts to monetize the otherwise free database.
Not that this is a bad thing. At any open-source company, developers are the lifeblood of the project and particular care must be taken to cater to their interests and needs. Widenius filled that role admirably.
But Widenius also made it harder to cover the real costs of open-source development, and continues to do so. Recently Widenius attacked Oracle for "suffocating" MySQL through proprietary enterprise extensions, among other things. This may be true, in part, but it's also true that Oracle has 400-plus engineers working on MySQL, and somehow their work needs to be paid for.
In an interview with ZDNet, Widenius (mis)remembers the halcyon of people happily paying for open-source software, and suggests that "Now the problem is that you have companies that are heavily using open source but refuse to pay anything back because they don't have to." This has, of course, always been the case, and yet it hasn't stopped open source from booming, both as a community development and corporate revenue perspective.
Monty's Solution: "Business Source"
Still, Widenius pines for a business model that will help feed development while generating a profit. His strategy, called "business source," effectively amounts to dumping open source entirely, but only for a few years:
[Business source] is a commercial licence that is time-based and which will become open source after a given time, usually three years. But you can get access to all the source. You can use it in any way but the source has a comment that says you can use it freely except in these circumstances when you have to pay.
In other words, it's not open source. It doesn't fit the parameters of the canonical Open Source Definition. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but let's call a spade a spade. Business source is simply proprietary software released under a Microsoft-esque shared source license that magically becomes fully open source after a period of time.
Surely this must rankle the free software-loving Widenius, but he comes to terms with it by espousing the exact same rationale used by those that advocate Open Core or similar strategies for open source:
You're forcing a small part of your user base to pay for the restrictions, which can be if you're making money from [the software], if you have more than 100 employees, or you're a big company or something like that. So you're forcing one portion of your users to pay.
Exactly. But this is the same as the various strategies MySQL tried, which Widenius fought.
It's Not About The License
Jim Jagielski, president and co-founder of the Apache Software Foundation, suggests that "if your open source project isn't successful with FOSS licensing, it's not the license's fault." Rather, it's a matter of trying to charge for the wrong things:
what's "destroying" open source isn't people not paying for it, but wrong ideas on WHAT they should be paying for— Jim Jagielski (@jimjag) May 30, 2013
To wit, Facebook, Google, Amazon and others make billions of dollars selling services around open-source infrastructure, while Red Hat mints over a billion dollars annually selling a certified, binary distribution of community-developed Linux. There is plenty of money in and around open-source software. The open-source license doesn't prevent this. It enables this.
Widenius is a smart person. He'll figure it out. It's only surprising that his experience at MySQL didn't already teach him this lesson.
Image courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media.