MongoDB no longer seeks OSI approval for SSPL

MongoDB announced that they are withdrawing the SSPL license from the OSI license-review process.

This reduces confusion about what is Open Source and what is not, but leaves a crucial question unsolved: how can we ensure sustainable development for Open Source projects?

Earlier today, MongoDB announced that they are withdrawing their SSPL license from the Open Source Initiative License-Review process. MongoDB CTO Eliot Horowitz writes:

We continue to believe that the SSPL complies with the Open Source Definition and the four essential software freedoms. However, based on its reception by the members of this list and the greater open source community, […] we are hereby withdrawing the SSPL from OSI consideration.

[…] In the meantime, current and future versions of MongoDB Community will continue to be offered under the SSPL. Over the coming days, we will update the messaging on our website to make it clear that the SSPL has not been approved under the OSI’s definition of “open source.”

Full email:

In October 2018, MongoDB switched its popular NoSQL database from the AGPL v3 to the new Server Side Public License (SSPL). This move was intended to “protect” MongoDB against cloud vendors that reap economic benefit from hosting the database without contributing back to MongoDB development. To do this, the SSPL extended its reach far beyond other copyleft licenses. MongoDB argued this was necessary since microservices are the new dynamically linked libraries.

MongoDB is not the only company that has recently moved their products away from Open Source licenses. Around the same time, Redis had relicensed some modules to their non-FLOSS “Commons Clause”, though Redis has meanwhile moved on to a clearly proprietary license.

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is the steward of the Open Source Definition. Software under an OSI-approved license is free to use for anyone for any purpose.

On the OSI's license-review mailing list, there had been concerns that the SSPL fails to deliver these necessary freedoms. In particular, the SSPL would have restricted other companies from hosting MongoDB as a Service. The SSPL's extension of copyleft was also considered to go beyond what copyright law actually allows. The license change also prompted Linux distributions to drop support for MongoDB.

While I am sad that MongoDB has decided to leave the Open Source ecosystem, this retraction makes it clearer what is and isn't Open Source: the SSPL is not a FLOSS license due to its restrictive requirements.

However, the problem that the SSPL tried to address still remains: how can we fund the development of Open Source software? The SSPL tried to solve this by giving the copyright holder a soft monopoly on SaaS offerings, but by doing so stopped being Open Source. Some projects manage to sustain themselves from donations, but most projects would never make enough to pay for maintenance.

The status quo is that the vast majority of Open Source projects rely on volunteer effort or are carried by companies with their own interests, and that needs to improve. It is regrettable but understandable that some companies like MongoDB didn't find a way to combine Open Source development with a viable business model.