Redefining Open Source via "Commercial Open Source"
As i’ve written about before, I think the term “Open Source” is quite important but it’s not uncommon to see the term stretched or misrepresented, often for business benefit. For the last year I’ve been recording such scenarios and a frequent character in those records has been Runa Capital, a venture capital firm founded in 2010 that has a focus on tech.
Runa often like to publish lists like their “Awesome open-source alternatives to SaaS” repo or “The fastest-growing open-source startups in 2022”, the latter of which is part of their “ROSS (Runa Open Source Startup) Index” series where they provide quarterly and annual top lists according to their own methodology. I believe this is all to establish themselves within the open source space and market their firm; They often push for those in their lists to add their “ROSS Badges” to their pages and they propagate their content through news sites.
Nothing wrong with any of that, but within these lists they often stretch the definition of open source quite far, and they do this quite consistently. As an example, here’s 4 projects from their “fastest-growing open-source startups in 2022” list that wouldn’t typically be considered open source:
- OpenReplay - Source available core, defaulting to (ELv2).
- License prevents certain use-cases.
- OpenReplay do advertise themselves as open source, which I have queried here and I’ve since been blocked from their GitHub content for this.
- Runa have invested in this company.
- Umbrel - PolyForm Noncommercial License 1.0.0
- License prevents certain use-cases.
- Netmaker - SSPLv1
- License has strong discrimination against certain fields of endeavour.
- Obsidian - Not even source available?
- Runa links to this repo in their list.
This isn’t a one-off case. Here’s an issue I raised querying 14 projects listed on their awesome-oss-alternatives list. Here’s me querying their Q4 2022 ROSS list, and for their Q2 2022 list.
For their 2022 list I received a response from a general partner at Runa:
There are two approaches to open source: orthodox and commercial. As a VC, we stick to the latter and consider e.g. Elastic and MongoDB as COSS companies, despite SSPL is not approved by the OSI. The same for @OpenReplayHQ and many others.
Personally, I can’t help feeling gaslit from this response. Never have I heard someone use the term “orthodox” open source but it’s being positioned here like a common equivalent to “commercial” open source, allowing them to fence the existing commonly understood definition of open source into “orthodox” so they can define the latter “commercial” open source as desired. The idea that open source, with the “commercial” categorization, should allow for a more open interpretation is an insult to those people, and companies, that have managed to make commercial success in the open source space. Additionally, their “As a VC, we stick to the latter” feels like an insult to all VCs that do considerately fund open source projects & start-ups.
I followed up their response with this:
But then where do you draw the line for what open source is? Some of those project’s licenses are quite restrictive. Obsidian isn’t even source available. This kind of thing is commonly seen as attempting to stretch the open source definition for marketing and business benefit
As of writing, I’ve yet to hear a response.
Even if they did feel it’s fine to use and redefine open source by sticking “commercial” before it, that’s not something they do most of the time. “Commercial” rarely sits in front of open source in their titles or content. Or maybe they expect everyone else to start using “orthodox” open source as a differentiator.
I understand not everyone will have the same viewpoint as me, and many don’t see reason to be so strict with the definition & use of open source; Fair enough. But it’s kind of frustrating to me that it’s almost always stubbornly mis-used in cases where that entity benefits from doing so. Here, for marketing and strategy of their own investments. This kind of thing gives me “Embrace, extend, and extinguish” vibes. They’ve embraced open source to establish themselves in the space, they’ve extended the term and it’s definition, which eventually helps to extinguish its original use.