Perforce Software’s Justin Reock, wearing a 'hoodie' top.

There’s something of a storm brewing in open source. The movement that originated as something of an altruistic rebuttal to the dominance of proprietary software was at first spurned, later eyed with suspicious intrigue… and then ultimately embraced by those who initially thought of it as a cancerous discoloration on the face of enterprise commercial software.

The storm channeling across the open [source] seas has come about as a result of the commercial sector now working to engage openly and visibly with major open source projects. The core mantra of open source remains one of free software for everyone in the community, but with an encouragement to ‘contribute back’ to the project in hand in the form of submitted code ‘commits’ or other forms of community involvement such as language translation, hosting special interest groups and so on.

But not everybody is willing to chant the full set of verses in the open mantra.

Increasing points of tension

As we have discussed already here on Forbes, there is an increasing amount of tension between open source projects (and open source companies) and those that are building commercialized (i.e. paid for) services on top of open source, such as cloud vendors with their database services.

The question we must now ask is whether it’s okay for billion-dollar corporations to profit from open source technologies in this way – after all, the projects themselves were initially developed on the basis of complete open freedom, right? Should commercial software organizations be ‘forced’ to contribute to the projects they use if they build new services on top of open cores upon which they profit? Such ethical questions about the use of open source projects are not new.

Climate of fear

In a 2008 paper called The Cloud vs. Open Source, Red Hat evangelist, Gordon Haff observed a fear emerging in the marketplace that, “Companies will wholesale strip-mine open source projects,” he wrote.

Fast forward to February of 2019 and chief architect for open source services and support specialist OpenLogic (now a part of) Perforce Software Justin Reock thinks that there are some other key seminal moments we need to take on board in this discussion.

Reock reminds us that it was at this point last year just twelve months ago that Redis CEO Ofer Bengal announced his organization’s project to work under a Common Clause license and said, “Open source has to be fixed because it isn’t suitable anymore to the modern era where cloud companies use their monopoly power to adopt any successful open source project without contributing anything to it.”

So what exactly is the problem? Profits? An expectations for contributions? Both, something else or other?

“It’s important to remember what free software means,” said Reock. “For me and millions of people in all demographics, free means gaining unlimited access to really good software. So, it makes sense that people who use open source for school and hobby also use it in the workplace to solve problems and make a living. Is that a bad thing? This takes us back to the questions about freedom and required reciprocity: do we need to set rules around who can use (and profit from) open source?”

Freedom, at a price

It comes down to a question of asking: should users be ‘required’ to contribute? Many will argue that this requirement (were it to be formally stipulated) would be hard to enforce, tough to police, cumbersome to grade and problematic to follow through on.

For the sake of objectivity, let’s look at how open source cloud services hold up to the ethos of the Free Software Foundation, the caretakers of the General Public License (GPL). The foundation says, “When we call software ‘free,’ we mean that it respects the users’ essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it… and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of ‘free speech, not ‘free beer.’”

Liberation from hardware ‘obstacles’

Perforce’s Reock asks us to consider the fact that anyone can fire up an Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) cloud instance on a modern computer processor and immediately start playing. Amazon hasn’t forbidden anyone from using Linux or installing any kind of software on it. He says that cloud services just make it easier for people to redistribute and consume free software because hardware provisioning is no longer an obstacle. So, if millions of people are using open source projects, isn’t that a positive?

“To paraphrase the philosophies of the Free Software Foundation, free software does not mean noncommercial,” said Reock. “Whether you pay for free softwarem (AKA open source) or not, you always have the freedom to copy, change and even sell it. The foundation also points out that, ‘Free software is not a matter of price…. Redistributing free software is a good and legitimate activity; if you do it, you might as well make a profit from it.’”

“The cloud has followed the web as the next means of software distribution and monetization. Despite initial fears, the web’s streamlined software-distribution model stimulated unprecedented innovation – more than it stymied creativity.”

Chief architect, OpenLogic, Perforce Software Justin Reock.

Essential user freedoms

So for Reock at least, the distribution of free software as cloud services is proving no different in terms of its core ‘sharing’ mantra, no matter how it ends up being used.

He argues that in addition to fueling increased open source adoption and community participation, free software in the cloud is also driving even greater levels of innovation, while still respecting essential user freedoms.

“These include the right to use free software with no strings attached, after all, isn’t that what freedom is? The relationship between free software and public cloud services is not only complementary, it is non-zero-sum game [where one player’s win does not necessarily equate to another person’s loss],” said Reock.

So commercialized open source (as discussed in this analysis) is more open DNA, even if the route to commercial monetization is being made pretty clear. Not every purist will share Reock’s view, but then it comes down to a question of free speech doesn’t it?