MongoDB switches up its open-source license

MongoDB is a bit miffed that some cloud providers — especially in Asia — are taking its open-source code and offering a hosted commercial version of its database to their users without playing by the open-source rules. To combat this, MongoDB today announced it has issued a new software license, the Server Side Public License (SSPL), that will apply to all new releases of its MongoDB Community Server, as well as all patch fixes for prior versions.

Previously, MongoDB used the GNU AGPLv3 license, but it has now submitted the SSPL for approval from the Open Source Initiative.

For virtually all regular users who are currently using the community server, nothing changes because the changes to the license don’t apply to them. Instead, this is about what MongoDB sees as the misuse of the AGPLv3 license. “MongoDB was previously licensed under the GNU AGPLv3, which meant companies who wanted to run MongoDB as a publicly available service had to open source their software or obtain a commercial license from MongoDB,” the company explains. “However, MongoDB’s popularity has led some organizations to test the boundaries of the GNU AGPLv3.”

So while the SSPL isn’t all that different from the GNU GPLv3, with all the usual freedoms to use, modify and redistribute the code (and virtually the same language), the SSPL explicitly states that anybody who wants to offer MongoDB as a service — or really any other software that uses this license — needs to either get a commercial license or open source the service to give back the community.

“The market is increasingly consuming software as a service, creating an incredible opportunity to foster a new wave of great open source server-side software. Unfortunately, once an open source project becomes interesting, it is too easy for cloud vendors who have not developed the software to capture all of the value but contribute nothing back to the community,” said Eliot Horowitz, the CTO and co-founder of MongoDB, in a statement. “We have greatly contributed to — and benefited from — open source and we are in a unique position to lead on an issue impacting many organizations. We hope this will help inspire more projects and protect open source innovation.”

I’m sure this move will ruffle some feathers. It’s hard to discuss open-source licenses without getting religious about what this movement is all about. And because MongoDB is the commercial entity behind the software and manages outside contributions to the code, it does have a stronger grip on the actual code than other projects that are managed by a large open-source foundation, for example. For some, that alone is anathema to everything they think open source should stand for. For others, it’s simply a pragmatic way to develop software. Either way, though, this will kick off a discussion about how companies like MongoDB manage their open-source projects and how much control they can exert over how their code is used. I, for one, can’t wait to read the discussions on Hacker News today.