Elasticsearch licensing change fuels anger in open-source community

Elasticsearch, a hugely popular open-source project, is changing its licensing terms. It’s going from Apache 2.0 to SSPL & Elastic License. They have their reasons for doing this, but regardless, the open-source community is very upset about the move and is calling parent company Elastic out on what they consider hypocrisy. Let’s analyze this big change and what it means for the industry at large.

Why did Elasticsearch make this licensing change?

Elastic said the licensing change “protects our continued investment in developing products that we distribute for free and in the open by restricting cloud service providers from offering our products as a service without sharing their modifications and the source code of their service management layers.”

The switch to an SSPL and Elastic license is aimed at making it harder for AWS, in particular, to take advantage of the benefits of open source without contributing back. AWS Elasticsearch service is the biggest competitor to Elastic, which runs its own hosted Elastic service. A much bigger company with a broader reach, AWS is stealing Elastic’s lunch — and they’re not too happy about it. Elastic wants AWS and other companies like it to pay for redistribution rights.

How did AWS respond?

AWS has gone on the offensive, putting out a blog post, saying, “Elastic knows what they’re doing is fishy,” and calling out Elastic for promising they “never will” change the licensing of the Apache 2.0 code of Elasticsearch. AWS further announced that they would be forking Elasticsearch and creating a separate project under the Apache 2.0 license. They call all open-source developers to congregate around their fork from now on.

AWS did the same thing with MongoDB back when Mongo created the SSPL to protect its product from being sold by Amazon. AWS simply renamed their service to DocmentDB. This is just a renamed service that was built off an older version of Mongo.

Mongo offers a hosted service called Atlas that has performed very well since the switch to the SSPL license. Their revenues have soared to half a billion. Mongo CEO Dev Ittycheria commented that since making this change Mongo’s “popularity has exploded.” He further echoes Elastic’s sentiment saying, “We roughly spend about 50 percent of our R&D [budget] on the [core MongoDB open-source project], which is free, right? A lot of cloud providers spend a minuscule amount of R&D on open sourcing their products. And we just did think it was patently unfair for someone to take our hard work, our time, and our money and then try and take advantage of that.”

There are many who sympathize with the plight of these organizations that are unable to fully benefit from their work. However, there are far more who think otherwise.

Open-source community furious over the Elasticsearch licensing change

Elasticsearch licensing

Reactions to this Elasticsearch licensing change range from sympathy to anger to confusion — and everything in between. Here are some facts surrounding this issue:

  • Elasticsearch was built off of Apache Lucene, which itself is completely open source to this day.
  • Around 1,600 developers have contributed to Elasticsearch, making it the famous and successful project it is today.
  • Elastic has had every developer sign a CLA (contributor license agreement), which gives the company full rights to do as they please with every developer’s contribution.

Elastic owes its success to the open-source community. Its rise from obscurity to IPO to a company with a stock market value of $14 billion is in large part due to the adoption, and hard work, of open-source developers. Many of these developers have even come on board the Elastic team for this very reason — the pride of working on a leading open-source project. Now that Elastic has usurped exclusive rights to all this work, the open-source community is understandably furious with Elastic.

As AWS pointed out, Elastic did promise that they would never change their Apache 2.0 licensing, which they went back on claiming that circumstances have changed. Many see this as Elastic themselves pulling an AWS on the open-source community. That is a valid point and is at the heart of this issue. It raises deeper questions about the viability of open source and even a capitalistic system defined by the marketplace.

Monetizing open source

Open source has been a boon to the economy at large. Projects like Linux and Kubernetes are changing every facet of technology and everyday life. However, organizations that have made it big purely via open source are few and far between. Red Hat, the most successful of the lot, has made it big by providing support services for Linux.

Today, hosted fully managed services have replaced that older “support” model as the best way to monetize open source. This is why there’s a gold rush for who can provide the best managed Kubernetes offering today. The big three cloud vendors are at a sure advantage due to their scale and deep pockets. They can outspend anyone else and kill off competition. If not kill, at least stunt competitors’ growth. That’s precisely what’s happening here with Elastic. While Elastic’s growth would be the envy of most organizations built around open source, Elastic is likely leaving money, and lots of it, on the table for AWS to grab. Whether Elastic should be happy with its success or cry foul over AWS eating its share of the pie is debatable.

The fine balance between capitalism and ethics

Elasticsearch licensing
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Another aspect that comes up is the efficiency of the markets in a capitalistic system. Here, the top dog gets the biggest share of the pie, but that also means that many others enjoy the ripple benefits of the success of the top dog. For example, open-source developers have lucrative career options at these large corporations. Shareholders benefit from the profits. Further, it is also possible for Elastic to out-innovate AWS in the space and see their value steadily rise. However, Elastic would argue that AWS has copied all their innovations to date — something they’re currently fighting over in court.

It comes down to a question of ethics. It is completely legal for AWS to piggyback off the success of an open-source project without giving back, but is it fair? It’s completely legal for Elastic to change their licensing and claim rights over the work of unpaid open source developers, but is it fair? Should these companies choose aggressive financial growth over fairness and values? These questions would be answered differently by different people, but they are the defining questions here.

Governing open source

The big corporations watch their back closely and look to protect (a word Elastic has used a lot in recent days) their interests. It’s time for open-source developers to wake up to this fact and protect their own interests too. As @ehashdn says “This is why I won’t contribute projects that require a CLA without community governance. If there isn’t a CLA, the project can’t change the license unilaterally and must continue to honor the original terms of my engagement.” Developers should be wary of committing to projects with no governing body.

We can expect this incident to lead to a lot of changes in open source projects. Many developers would insist on the important projects becoming part of a foundation. The CNCF is the most prominent of the foundations today, with cooperation from every vendor on the block. Additionally, there should be clear structures for how the future of the project would be decided. For example, Linkerd just announced a steering committee, which is a great trust-building move and is contrary to Istio, a project to which Google still holds the reins.

So, it appears the takeaway from all this is licensing alone isn’t enough. Next time you decide to adopt an open-source project, take a cold hard look at the parent company behind it. And if you’re a customer of the big cloud vendors, before you fork out dollars to them, question their ethics.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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