Elastic restitches its licensing model to account for ‘changed circumstances’

Elastic license change

After licence tweaks at MongoDB and Redis aiming to stop cloud service providers that don’t contribute to the open source community from exploiting its projects, Elastic has also updated its licensing terms.

Instead of distributing source code under the Apache 2.0 License, Elastic will give customers the choice between its home-brewed Elastic License and the Server Side Public License (SSPL). The change will become effective in the upcoming 7.11 release but will have little impact on current users of the free default distribution, as Elastic CEO Shay Banon wrote in a statement. 

“If you are a customer of ours, either in Elastic Cloud or on premises, nothing changes. And if you’ve been downloading and using our default distribution, it’s still free and open under the same Elastic License. If you’ve been contributing to Elasticsearch or Kibana (thank you!) nothing changes for you either. ”

SSPL is the licence MongoDB came up with in 2018 to protect itself from cloud service providers who made use of the company’s code without really contributing to the project. The licence allows unrestricted use but requires service providers to open up modifications and the code needed to make the programme in question available as an external service (internal use or use at subsidiaries is fine) under the same licence. 

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Especially the latter often leads to frustration as it includes “without limitation, management software, user interfaces, application program interfaces, automation software, monitoring software, backup software, storage software and hosting software, all such that a user could run an instance of the service using the Service Source Code.” 

The choice to go with the SSPL nonetheless is likely motivated by Elastic being in the same boat as MongoDB: where cloud providers offer their products as a service and, in the case of AWS, compete directly with MongoDB’s own services. 

According to Banon, this situation “diverts funds that would have been reinvested into the product and hurts users and the community.”

For those not too keen on SSPL, there is always the Elastic License as an alternative, which many commercial users may already be familiar with. 

However, much like SSPL, the licence isn’t approved by the Open Source Initiative, which is why Elastic has started referring to Elasticsearch and Kibana as “source-available” as opposed to open source. This might void the “nothing changes” statement for open source contributors, which is somewhat ironic as one goal of the move is to keep the community from splintering.

AWS made a move in 2019 to launch the Open Distro for Elasticsearch. The distribution was sold as an attempt to help those confused by Elastic’s practice of providing code that also includes commercial features, though only the free ones were enabled by default in the APLv2-licensed version. Although this doesn’t seem to have generated a massive uptake yet, AWS’s promise to fully support the project might attract some additional users and contributors.

First reactions were divided between those who signaled understanding for the company and those struggling with the implications of the move. After all, SSPL is often considered unfree, which is why MongoDB (which uses it) has been removed from a variety of open source software, not to mention Linux distributions including Debian and RHEL. As a consequence some members of the Elastic team have been busy visiting issue trackers and forums explaining the new licensing and reassuring some teams about use cases.

Another source of user irritation was the promise Elastic made three years ago to “never” change the licence of any of the Apache 2.0 code. 
The company tried to justify its recent SSPL move by explaining its changed circumstances since 2018, which – besides keeping an eye on AWS’s shenanigans – include an accusation by Elastic itself that another company infringed on its copyright in 2019.

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