The Commons Clause - For Good or Bad
Written by Sue Gee   
Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The current debate about the Commons Clause, and other attempts to place restrictions on open source licences, is dividing opinion. But before taking sides first we need to understand what the Commons Clause does and why it is necessary.

According to the on its GitHub repo the Commons Clause is a Licence Condition contributed by FOSSA, a company which offers open-source licence management and drafted by Heather Meeker, a lawyer specializing in open source software licensing, including IP strategy, compliance, transactions, and disputes. 

The Commons Clause can be added as a commercial restriction on top of an open source licence to transition an existing open source project to a source availability licensing scheme, which means that while the source can be viewed, and in some cases modified, it is no longer fully open source. The restriction it imposes is that it denies the right to sell the software. 

The Commons Clause specified:

For purposes of the foregoing, “Sell” means practicing any or all of the rights granted to you under the License to provide to third parties, for a fee or other consideration (including without limitation fees for hosting or consulting/ support services related to the Software), a product or service whose value derives, entirely or substantially, from the functionality of the Software. Any license notice or attribution required by the License must also include this Commons Cause License Condition notice.

This new addition to the already complicated world of open source licensing might have passed under the radar, at least for a while, but when Redis adopted it for certain of its Redis Modules a furore broke out. 

In a lengthy post, The Commons Clause will destroy open source, Drew DeVault argued:

The Commons Clause promoted by Kevin Wang presents one of the greatest existential threats to open source I’ve ever seen. It preys on a vulnerability open source maintainers all suffer from, and one I can strongly relate to. It sucks to not be able to make money from your open source work. It really sucks when companies are using your work to make money for themselves. If a solution presents itself, it’s tempting to jump at it. But the Commons Clause doesn’t present a solution for supporting open source software. It presents a framework for turning open source software into proprietary software.

and OSI (Open Software Initiative) President Simon Phipps tweeted:


In fact there is no change to the licence under which Redis is available. The Commons clause is only being applied to modules created by Redis Labs, RediSearch, Redis Graph, ReJSON, Redis-ML and Rebloom being the examples listed and according to Redis' creator Salvatore Sanfilippo, responding to the erroneous idea that "Redis is no longer open source" also added that the change that has taken place:

 "means that basically certain enterprise add-ons, instead of being completely closed source as they could be, will be available with a more permissive license," 

In a subsequent explanation of why Redis made the decision to change modules to an Apache licence plus the Common Clause condition, it is because of the way cloud providers take advantage of open source projects:

Cloud providers contribute very little (if anything) to those open source projects. Instead, they use their monopolistic nature to derive hundreds of millions dollars in revenues from them. Already, this behavior has damaged open source communities and put some of the companies that support them out of business.

Today, most cloud providers offer Redis as a managed service over their infrastructure and enjoy huge income from software that was not developed by them. Redis Labs is leading and financing the development of open source Redis and deserves to enjoy the fruits of these efforts. Redis is and will always remain open source BSD license, but we decided to prevent cloud providers from creating managed services from certain add-ons on top of Redis. 

FOSSA founder Kevin Wang defended Commons Clause as a way to ensure that companies like Redis Labs can avoid third parties being the only beneficiaries of their work:  

"Open-source software projects are mainly funded by a proprietary offering/service counterparts. Anything to help this layer monetize is good -- the fate of the OSS is directly funded by it....  I certainly don't think the clause inspires people to close their source. But sometimes people need to change their license."

Another voice of moderation in the debate is that of Michael DeHann, creator of Ansible, who posted Why Open Source Needs New Licenses, which proposed that alternative clause to prevent third parties being the ones to profit from open source projects: 

  • While otherwise free for any use, if you profit from this software from consulting, services, support, training, or making the software available to 3rd parties via an online hosted service, you are required to buy a resale license.

In DeHann's theoretical model, 100% of the features would be available free to end users of all kinds bit when offering services against the software for profit a small charge would apply, which would allow those who offer those services to also compensate the creators and those who maintain projects. 

Referring to the ideals traditionally held by open source protagonists DeHaan writes: 

The idea that we have to completely give it all away to build communities, I think, is a flawed assumption. In fact, I argue that requiring some forms of commerce around a community to be mutually beneficial, we can keep more software open, and devote *more* resources to that community.

People are going to say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but basically I want to give you the cake. Except if you are reselling the cake, I want you to share a little bit of what you got for the cake. Seems about right.



More Information

Commons Clause website 

Commons Clause on Github

Redislabs Licenses

Redis’ License is BSD and will remain BSD

The Commons Clause will destroy open source 


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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 29 August 2018 )