Tuesday, 27 September 2005

MySQL's Quid pro Quo

At MySQL AB, we say we follow the principle of Quid pro Quo (something for something, a favour for a favour) in our business model. Some things we offer free of charge to the community in thankful return for all the contributions and assistance we receive. Some things we offer to customers only in thankful return for all the money they give us.

There is a fine line defining what is free as in freedom, what is free as in without cost, and what is paid for. We spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing this line with the goal to serve our community and our paying customers the best (and we are keen to hear your advice to us!). We believe there is an optimal balance where the community continues to be passionate about what we provide, and the customers continue to passionately pay us for the unique value-add they receive. If we would not stay on that fine line, we could easily harm our relationship with either group (or, more likely, with both groups). But we think we can stay on that line, and therefore we think we have the opportunity to build a fantastically profitable company without deviating from the founding FOSS principles.

Our main contribution to the FOSS world
is naturally the source code of the MySQL server. Originally the work of Monty and David (our founders), it today comprises software produced by nearly 100 engineers around the world. We pay those engineers a monthly salary and give them other benefits, so I think it is appropriate to say that it is MySQL AB that contributes this software to the FOSS community. We have more than 6 million installations under GPL worldwide. If we may say so ourselves, this represents a significant contribution to the well-being of planet Earth. Most recently, active community members set up the ContactLovedOnes.org site for victims of the Katrina hurricane. Our contribution was very modest, but we did contribute the database software needed for the application to run.

And we have contributed more than just the core server. In 2003 we acquired the NDB Cluster product from Ericsson and released it under the GPL. In 2004 we took over the continued development of the Eventum support ticket system with a commitment to keep it open source. And throughout our history we have developed graphical tools that we release for the free use by anyone. We also publish information on our website, such as the MySQL reference manual. We do retain the copyright for our documentation, but we still make it publicly available on the web for all our users and customers. All of this does perhaps not sound like much, but there is a lot of hard work behind it! And those who do it need to get paid by someone. In our case, they get paid by MySQL AB.

I also claim that our "FOSS Exception" is a contribution to the community. To make this understood, we should probably have named it Extension instead of Exception. It is an unfortunate fact that not all free / open source licences are legally compatible with each other. Our software comes under the GPL but we do want those who use MPL and other popular licences to be able to use MySQL freely. So we unilaterally stated that we we are fine with users combining our GPL software with other FOSS-licensed software. You are not allowed to combine it with closed source software (even in the extension), but you can otherwise mix and match FOSS licences as you wish. Another way to solve this problem would be to harmonise all the FOSS licences of the world, and perhaps that will happen one day. Until then, the MySQL FOSS Exception is what you need.

There is another form of contribution as well. We are active financial supporters of the Free Software Foundation. We also invested a large sum of money and plenty of work hours in the campaign against software patents in the EU. That campaign still goes on and we are ready to continue to do our share of the work. Again, the phenomenal results in the form of a defensive victory against SWPATs in EU would not have been possible without the active participation by so many in the FOSS community.

That more or less concludes the list of contributions from MySQL AB to the FOSS community. We are proud of what we contribute, but we also realise that the community around us makes similar contributions every day, and in the aggregate those contributions may well be far more significant than the ones we are doing. However, at the end of the day we should not be comparing the size of contributions -- we should just be very thankful that we live in an ecosystem where a majority of the participants voluntarily contribute something, with a better and more innovative world as the result!

So then you may ask what it is that MySQL AB does not give away free of charge? If the company claims to have a great business model, then surely there must be products or services that are reserved for paying customers only? Yes, that's absolutely right, and here follows a list of what you will have to pay for in order to get from us:

  • MySQL certification and training
  • consulting services (performance tuning, database design, migrations, etc.)
  • features added to the product outside the normal development roadmap
  • technical support
  • the right to use our trademark and logo
  • MySQL Network (our subscription offering which contains technical support, alerts, updates, advisor software that helps the DBA, knowledge base, certified binaries, legal indemnification, etc.)
  • the MySQL server under a commercial licence (for those who wish to distribute MySQL embedded in a non-FOSS application or product)

This is the thinking of the “fine line” by MySQL AB. We have chosen a specific business model that we call Quid pro Quo, and we have chosen the GPL licence to represent it. The GPL is not perfect, but it is the best one we could find. Our ambition is to show the world -- with your help -- that we can build a fantastically profitable open source business and thereby provide evidence and inspiration for the whole world. We think the world deserves successful open source companies, and we are set on being one of them!

How does this resonate with you? Is there rhyme and reason in our thinking -- or are we perhaps too generous with our precious property? Or are we too strict? How would you do it if you were the owner of MySQL AB? I am open to your ideas!

1 comment:

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