Brussels / 2 & 3 February 2019


Interview with Michael Cheng
SSPL, Confluent License, CockroachDB License and the Commons Clause. Is it freedom to choose to be less free?

Michael Cheng will give a talk about SSPL, Confluent License, CockroachDB License and the Commons Clause. Is it freedom to choose to be less free? at FOSDEM 2019.

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I’m an attorney at Facebook. I support the company’s open source, licensing, collaboration and M&A activities. I learned to use Linux in high school doing sysadmin. I’m a Raspberry Pi fanatic. Probably have 20 of those running in my house at any one time.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

I’ll be discussing how a number of companies have recently re-licensed their projects to non-standard licenses. Lots of folks are concerned about this and its impact on the community. I think it’s an important discussion to have.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

When these new licenses first emerged, I shared a lot of the community’s frustrations about the potential problems that non-standard licenses could create, but over time, I became worried that excessive debate over the legal technicalities and definitional issues would lead us to more division and acrimony that wasn’t necessarily productive.

I do think these discussions are important to have and I plan to dig into some of them, but my ultimate aim is to shift the focus to the fundamental problem that these licenses were created to solve: how to bring the cloud providers to the table.

These are valuable projects and we should do what we can to exhaust all of the technical and business solutions before people fork and split the investment. The dream here would be to find a solution that will create an ecosystem where we can go back to the standard licenses.

I also wanted to note that these comments are my own opinions and impressions of the industry and do not represent those of Facebook. I’m not in a position to speak for Facebook in any capacity.

Q: Last year the SSPL, CockroachDB, Commons Clause and Confluent licenses have appeared, all around the same time and all with the same goal of protecting their software from unfair usage by vendors who resell it as a service. What has caused this tipping point?

I don’t think it was any one event. It’s more of a longer term business trend that has become more prevalent with the dominance of the public cloud. I think there was a calculus of balancing how concerned some companies were with cloud providers’ activities weighed against friction in the community. It’s been slowly reaching a tipping point for some time and this was the year that it spilled over.

Q: Which — maybe unintended — consequences do you expect these licenses to have for their respective projects and for the broader FOSS community?

The immediate effect is you probably have lot of folks who contributed or invested in a project on the basis of one license, only to find it is now a different license. You will also find people confused and unsure of how to interpret these. So people will have to decide whether they want to fork. Just like any other re-licensing effort, it has the potential to divide people in the camps. Debate and lively discussion is good but I don’t like seeing people split off into their corners. Moreover, the more debate we are doing, the less time we are spending writing great code.

Q: What other alternative approaches are there to address the problem that cloud providers aren’t playing fair with FOSS?

I think we have to get together to find technical or business solutions to these problems. Mongo and others have tried a legal play with these licenses, but there are also some technical approaches that I want to discuss. There aren’t any easy answers here, but leverage and collective action are key.

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

I’ve been to other open source conferences around the world, but this will be my first time at FOSDEM. I’m really looking forward it.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.