2018/11/04: A new, self-consciously commercial coalition in open source, operating at the level of the older permissive and copyleft coalitions we’ve known so far, would be something new. If we wanted to bet on the past, instead, we’d take reconciliation within the copyleft user base.
In other words, a new, even stronger copyleft license that both software freedom activists and competitive upstarts could rally behind, in mutual support. Probably another patch to GPL, like SSPL, but a patch the activist community could make its own. A Mongo GPL that FSF could make GNU Mongo GPL to close the API and container loopholes, as Affero GPL became GNU Affero GPL to close the ASP loophole.
There is cause for doubt in the details.
I don’t think the Free Software Foundation is of any mind to write a stronger copyleft license right now. It is headed in decidedly the opposite direction. More and more, the FSF has constrained itself to soft power, emphasized conciliation over enforcement, declined to make punitive examples, and accepted praise, attention, and stewardship of key but aging projects, rather than double down and scare off fellow travelers. Doctrinally, they’ve stuck to dogma on license drafting, notably freedom zero absolutism and private changes, that prevent them from closing the new loopholes robustly. Software freedom is a young, angry movement where widespread computing, and software freedom, are also new. But only there, far from the industry center of mass where SSPL is relevant, and FSF feels anachronistic.
More concretely, the Free Software Foundation doesn’t appear to share upstart business concern about API and container loopholes, as it once shared concern about the ASP loophole. FSF partisans point to activist users of AGPLv3 and see nothing wrong. In large part because activist projects under AGPLv3 don’t offer nearly the business bounty value that upstart projects do. They have succeeded largely within a niche activist community, appealing to its interests and style of computing. And in large part because activist AGPLv3 developers’ use case is different. The license was tailored to their needs, and will fit a while longer.
That’s not to say there’s no hunger for a more extreme, streamlined copyleft license among radical activists. There’s plenty of frustration with compromise. But here the cross-cutting nature of the new business-oriented licenses blocks the path.
I don’t perceive any activist demand for the peculiar combination of permissiveness and copyleft, and the specific line between, that upstart open source database developers crave. When software freedom activists want a permissive license, they use Apache 2.0. In vanishing edge cases, they use LGPL. The FSF position on “service as a software substitute” is that it’s pernicious. Why would activists want a license that allows making free code nonfree for the good kind of software—software you run for yourself—and requires keeping free code free for the bad kind—services substituting for software you run for yourself? Activists, independent and small-scale, aren’t living in the “new normal” of containerized, orchestrated service clusters deployed on rented infrastructure. They can’t afford thousands of dollars in service charges a month.
Overall, I’m sad to say that I think FSF has tightened its own bind. It knows it needs allies, but it’s keeping the wrong company, courting established business with lots of developers to spare, but no practical common interest. Software freedom activism has trusted that purity of message will create a groundswell of support sufficient to turn the tide of permissive alternatives, thin-client computing, and the relegation of free approaches to tooling, back-end components, and building blocks for proprietary end-user applications. It has optimized for taller pulpits from which to preach its message. But it’s drowned out as more economic interests join in and take over, and can’t match commercial volume. Unless or until software freedom reality comes to be felt as a crisis, and not just understood as one, I don’t think the Free Software Foundation has either a stronger license to give, or enough flexibility to accept someone else’s.