BUSL is good for open source

October 10th, 2023

BUSL is a positive development for open source software.

First let me talk about why BUSL is fine and not some kind of open-source-moral-decay. Open source is not a business model, it’s just an attribute of your product. So much of the last decade has been zero-interest rate thinking, but the future will be a more thoughtful balance. Importantly, you’d rather these business have eventually open source models over proprietary ones because it at least allows for transparency and a basic “escape hatch” in case the company becomes bankrupt (morally or financially).

Sentry’s license is the right balance. You should be able to run Sentry on your own servers. Sentry would rather “salt the earth” for anyone that can’t yet use the SaaS. And you want people to be able to trust the product. After all, even if Sentry turned entirely greedy, they’d only be able to squeeze you for two years before you could just fork the old version. Honestly, at most big companies, it’d take you a year to swap vendors anyways.

Why is BUSL actually good for open source? Open source is a license. The whole point of licenses is to incentivize investment. Open source incentivizes usage and contribute from uncoordinated economic groups, especially solo brilliant/prolific developers. But to be honest…uncoordinated economic groups have a lot of trouble maintaining great open source projects without a foundation. What really is the difference between a foundation and a business with BUSL? How immediately the code is “free”? Who does that matter to?

Open source was important in an age where software licensing was onerous and cumbersome. But that’s not the case today, especially with SaaS. So which would you rather have building your open source software? A foundation whose motivations are muddled by their sponsors? Or a company whose livelihood depends on that software?

Think about copyright. You should absolutely be able to write fanfiction about your favorite characters. But you shouldn’t be able to commercialize that fanfiction because it 100% will cause confusion and make it a worse experience for authors and readers alike. You can, as the Twilight author did, change the names, but it’s then up to you to market that, instead of trying to piggyback off someone else’s success.

There are so many cases where you shouldn’t open source. Are you doing something crazily new where things are changing so fast that publishing slows you down? Don’t open source. Especially if you’re confident you’ll be able to recruit employees and developers based on the new capabilities of your platform. Nvidia CUDA is probably the best example of this. Over the last decade, if you were interested in massively parallel computing and weren’t working at or building on Nvidia…you were probably lying to yourself. When was the last time a proprietary development platform was popular? Windows, AWS, and iOS, all cases where open sourcing had little to no benefit.

Open source’s benefits aren’t revenue generation. Why would anyone publish blog posts? Publishing is valuable in and of itself. It forces rigor and invites discussion. Open source does the same. It helps with the flow of new ideas, especially for the 80% of companies who aren’t the leading edge of technology.

Also, there’s not much point to keeping code proprietary forever. Code is like an answer key to an exam. Short-term, incredibly valuable; long-term useless unless you’ve actually mastered the material. Long-term, code isn’t valuable because long-term, all code is either trivially clonable or eventually rewritten, so long as the code itself is valuable.

Until we all start contribting to OSS and donating to Wikipedia, BUSL does a decent job of keeping a lot of the benefits of open source while still preserving the economic viability of investing more into the software.