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Open source licenses may not matter so much any more

After all the drama around MongoDB’s change of license from the open source Affero General Public License (AGPL) to the hopefully-but-not-yet-open-source Server Side Public License (SSPL), the company has now decided to retire the effort. No, MongoDB is not going back to AGPL. Yes, it is sticking with the SSPL. But it no longer is seeking the Open Source Initiative’s blessing to accept SSPL as an open source license.

This decision could show that traditionalist views on open source don’t matter so much today.

The reason MongoDB moved to SSPL

We’re living in interesting times. Never has open source been more pervasive in software, and yet never has it been as much flux as it appears to be now. With cloud giants like Amazon Web Services allegedly able to crush the vendors behind open source projects like MongoDB and Elasticsearch, those same vendors have looked for ways to fend off the cloud giants while encouraging enterprise customers to pay up.

Judging by their earnings reports, the AWS threat has so far seemed more anticipated than actual, but it’s understandable that MongoDB et al. would be looking for ways to protect their investments in code. In a conversation with MongoDB CTO Eliot Horowitz recently, he mentioned that MongoDB has spent more than $300 million to develop the popular database, which it has open-sourced for all to use, free of charge. For AWS or another cloud vendor to take this code without giving something of reasonable value in return is wrong.

Thus the use of SSPL, which basically says, “If you make MongoDB available as a service, you need to contribute back the code that goes into that service.” It’s probably overreaching but, again, it’s not hard to understand why MongoDB is doing it.

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