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Can Copyleft Clouds Find Contributors?

This morning’s announcement that Citrix would be contributing CloudStack to the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a big win for Apache – and a minor loss for copyleft. With the change, only one open-source cloud infrastructure player (Eucalytpus) is hewing to the copyleft model.

OpenStack, OpenNebula, and soon CloudStack and OpenShift, are provided under the Apache license. If you’ve been watching open-source licensing trends, this may not come as a shock. The figures from Black Duck and other sources indicate that the GNU General Public License (GPL) family has been on the decline for some time.

The numbers don’t tell the full story, of course. Looking at a wide swath of projects across several open-source hosting projects doesn’t give a perfect picture. Many of the projects being counted are of little importance, and will wind up abandoned soon after they start.

But there does seem to be a clear trend that corporate-sponsored projects are trending away from copyleft licenses. When you’re building cloud infrastructure software, this might be a bit of a problem.

To Copyleft, or Not to Copyleft?

This morning I spoke to Mårten Mickos, CEO of Eucalyptus Systems, and former CEO of MySQL AB. In both cases, Mickos has helmed companies formed around products with GPL’ed software – GPLv2 in the case of MySQL, GPLv3 in the case of Eucalyptus. Note that Mickos did not actually choose the license in either case – he was brought in after that decision had been made.

But Mickos says that he’s a believer in the “full openness of the code,” which includes protecting the “four freedoms” espoused by the Free Software Definition.

Mickos says that it’s not the license that a project is under that’s as important as the way the project is governed. “The issue of contribution is up to the steward of the project; you can run a project so that you get lots of contributions or so it doesn’t get lots of contributions.”

It’s certainly true, and Eucalyptus is an example of this – that governance and the way a project is managed makes an enormous difference. Eucalyptus has not seen the level of contribution that it wanted, so the company brought on former Red Hatter Greg DeKoenigsberg to put the community back on track.

Eucalyptus may be attracting more contributors now through better governance and such, but it doesn’t seem to be attracting corporate contributors. (They have signed a deal with Amazon, but it does not include Amazon contributing code to Eucalyptus.)

When it comes to individual contributors, the choice of license may not be as important. Some developers have strong preferences about licenses, but as Mickos pointed out this morning, it’s usually a matter of how a project is run and whether it’s useful to the developer. If a project has good governance and has a reasonable infrastructure for contributions, the choice of open-source license may matter very little.

Institutional Preference of License

Things are quite different when you’re trying to attract hardware and software vendors that might prefer a license that allows proprietary re-licensing.

As Citrix’s Mark Hinkle told me yesterday, a lot of vendors have a strong institutional preference for nonreciprocal licenses. It’s usually described as being “commercial-friendly,” which is a euphemism for “we don’t have to give back code if we don’t want to.”

It doesn’t really matter what an individual developer likes or dislikes if the employer decides it only wants to contribute to a non-copyleft project. This morning, Mickos agreed that hardware vendors like Dell and HP seem to prefer permissive licenses like Apache – but said that “advanced end users” like Cornell University will contribute to copyleft projects if they enjoy using the technology.

That may be true, but it’s looking more and more like corporate contributors – including open-source stalwarts Red Hat – are preferring noncopyleft licenses for cloud infrastructure software.

Since much of cloud development is being driven by corporations, and not individual developers, this seems like a tough trend for copyleft supporters and projects.

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