MongoDB "open-source" Server Side Public License rejected

Red Hat won't use MongoDB in Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Fedora thanks to MongoDB's new Server Side Public License.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

MongoDB is an open-source document NoSQL database with a problem. While very popular, cloud companies, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), IBM Cloud, Scalegrid, and ObjectRocket has profited from it by offering it as a service while MongoDB Inc. hasn't been able to monetize it to the same degree. MongoDB's answer? Relicense the program under its new Server Side Public License (SSPL). Open-source powerhouse Red Hat's reaction? Drop MongoDB from Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 8

Red Hat's Technical and Community Outreach Program Manager Tom Callaway explained, in a note stating MongoDB is being removed from Fedora Linux, that "It is the belief of Fedora that the SSPL is intentionally crafted to be aggressively discriminatory towards a specific class of users." Debian Linux had already dropped MongoDB from its distribution.

The specific objection is that SSPL requires, if you offer services licensed under it, that you must open-source all programs that you use to make the software available as a service. When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer infamously warned of Linux's GPL being "a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual-property sense to everything it touches," he was wrong. But, the SSPL explicitly tried to do this.

Eliot Horowitz, MongoDB's CTO and co-founder explained the logic for this in the Open Source Initiative (OSI) discussion on the SSPL: 

We believe that in today's world, linking has been superseded by the provision of programs as services and the connection of programs over networks as the main form of program combination. It is unclear whether existing copyleft licenses clearly apply to this form of program combination, and we intend the SSPL to be an option for developers to address this uncertainty.

It hasn't worked. Callaway continued:

Additionally, it seems clear that the intent of the license author is to cause Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt towards commercial users of software under that license. To consider the SSPL to be 'Free' or 'Open Source' causes that shadow to be cast across all other licenses in the FOSS ecosystem, even though none of them carry that risk.

Previously, the OSI declined to declare SSPL an open-source license. The proposed SSPLv2 has also stalled out in the OSI.

The business point behind MongoDB's license change is to force cloud companies to use one of MongoDB's commercial cloud offerings. This hasn't worked either.

AWS just launched DocumentDB, a database, which "is designed to be compatible with your existing MongoDB applications and tools," wrote AWS evangelist Jeff Barr. "It works with MongoDB version 3.6, which was introduced in November 2017," [before SSPL was applied] and "implements the MongoDB 3.6 API by emulating the responses that a MongoDB client expects from a MongoDB server."

MongoDB is not happy about this. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so it's not surprising that Amazon would try to capitalize on the popularity and momentum of MongoDB. However, developers are savvy enough to distinguish between the real thing and a poor imitation," said Dev Ittycheria, MongoDB's CEO.

Are they? MongoDB's SSPL effort to capture revenue appears to have backfired. Now not just cloud companies but Linux vendors turning their back on MongoDB.

As Devrim Gündüz, Principal Systems Engineer at EnterpriseDB, said, "I do appreciate the reasoning behind MongoDB's decision to move to the SSPL. It can certainly be frustrating to see mega-cloud service providers profiting vastly more from popular open-source projects than the contributors that develop and maintain these projects." But, Bruce Perens, one of open-source's creators, remarked, no one's preventing "you from using any license. Just don't call it Open Source."

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