With the Functional Source license, Sentry wants to grant freedom to developers “without harmful free-riding”.

Another software license is vying for the attention of SaaS companies looking to align themselves with the open source space, without compromising their commercial efforts.

Sentry, an application performance monitoring (APM) company that helps companies such as Disney, Microsoft and Cisco track and resolve lagging or buggy applications, has migrated its core product to a new license it has designed called Functional Source License (FSL). Chad Whitacre, the company’s open source manager, says the license is intended for any SaaS company that wants to “grant freedom without harmful parasitism.”

“There is a long history of companies with deeper pockets and more resources taking advantage of traditional open source companies,” Whitacre told TechCrunch via email. “Open source companies, regardless of their licensing or pedantic definition, are increasingly dependent on the support of venture capital, profit, or, more importantly, the support of the companies that build on their code. »

To change

Recent history is full of examples of companies that grew through open source projects, but then abandoned those roots to protect their commercial interests. In 2021, Elastic moved Elasticsearch from an Apache 2.0 license to a duo of source-available licenses, a move designed to prevent third parties such as AWS from essentially selling its own version of Elasticsearch “as a service” without providing much in return to Elasticsearch. the initial project. More recently, HashiCorp did something similar with Terraform, while companies like Element (with Matrix) and Grafana moved from permissive open source licenses to so-called “copyleft” licenses, essentially forcing users to keep their derivative projects open. source, or to pay for a license to use the product.

As for Sentry, the San Francisco-based company started more than a decade ago under a permissive 3-clause BSD license, which has few restrictions. Similar to the other companies mentioned above, Sentry re-licensed its core product in 2019 to counter what co-founder and CTO David Cramer called “funded companies plagiarizing or copying our work to directly compete with Sentry.”

“This included ripping marketing content from our website, plagiarizing our documentation and presenting it as their own, or directly copying and pasting our product visuals,” Cramer wrote at the time. “Their defense? “Well, it’s free open source software, and we can do it.” These companies aren’t using Sentry to improve the way they develop software; they are lifting its code and assets to create their closed source products to compete directly with us.

Thus, Sentry has moved to the Business Source License (BSL), an available source license that allows unrestricted use in most non-commercial scenarios. Notably, BSL licensed products are time-limited and automatically revert to an open source Apache license after four years – this is designed to discourage commercial competitors from benefiting from a short-term project. However, Whitacre says four years is simply too long and doesn’t fit the spirit of open source.

“The default non-compete period is four years, which is a very long period in the software world,” Whitacre wrote in a blog post Friday. “This can give the impression that the eventual move to open source is just a token effort. It might almost as well take 100 years.

While Sentry had actually reduced its BSL license to three years, Whitacre said that was still too long. Additionally, the BSL license has other flaws, such as the “additional use grant” mechanism, which allows project owners to define specific circumstances under which their code can be used commercially.

“The additional user subsidy is the biggest problem,” Whitacre writes. “This is a giant filler that actually means each BSL is a different license.”

This variability means that BSL-licensed products are often difficult to gain approval from companies’ compliance departments, as they must review each license individually.

“It also makes it difficult for companies to adopt BSL for their own products, because they have to make decisions and write custom language for it,” Whitacre continued. “We want to broadly promote the values ​​that led us to BSL, and to that end we want to resolve friction with FSL.”

Sentry calls FSL an “evolution of BSL” that balances user freedom and developer sustainability. No additional usage permissions are planned and the time limit has been reduced to two years, after which associated products will automatically upgrade to an Apache 2.0 or MIT license.

“For businesses using FSL, two years provides protection from competition, but also provides an incentive to continue to innovate,” Whitacre wrote. “For the user community, two years provides significant protection in case the driving company drops the ball.”

However, Thierry Carrez, chief executive of the Open Infrastructure Foundation and vice president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) which manages the definition of open source software, said Sentry is just the latest in a line of companies to build their reputation in the market. go back to open source, then “abandon the model that made them successful in the first place.”

“The publication of another license variant which removes the self-sovereignty of developers in their technical choices is nothing new: it is still a question of removing essential freedoms from the entire software ecosystem to clearly state ownership of their proprietary software and the use you are authorized to make of it. that,” Carrez said. “It’s not open source: it’s proprietary access control wrapped in air-washed clothes.”

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