Dual-licensing – a tricky business
Licensing software under two separate licenses can be quite a challenge.
We’ve been in business for more than one year now with our dual-licensing strategy for jOOQ. While this strategy has worked very well for us, it has also been a bit of a challenge for some of our customers. Today, we’re going to show you what caveats of dual-licensing we’ve run into.
Our dual-licensing strategy
For those of you not acquainted with our license model, just a brief reminder to get you into the subject. We mainly consider ourselves as a vendor of Open Source software.
However, contrary to a variety of other companies like Gradleware or Red Hat, we don’t want to build our business model on support, which is a much tougher business than licensing. Why?
- Support contracts need a lot more long-term trust by customers, and more outbound sales. There’s only little inbound interest for such contracts, as people don’t acquire support until they need it.
- Vendor-supplied support competes with third-party support (as provided by UWS, for instance), which we want to actively encourage. We’d love to generate business for an entirely new market, not compete with our allies.
So we were looking for a solution involving commercial licensing. We wanted to keep an Open Source version of our product because:
- We’ll get traction with Open Source licensing much much more quickly than with commercial licensing
- While Open Source is a very tough competitor for vendors, it is also a great enabler for consumers. For instance, we’re using Java, Eclipse, H2 and much more. Great software for free!
It wouldn’t be honest to say that we truly believe in “free as in freedom” (libre), but we certainly believe in “free as in beer” (gratis) – because, who doesn’t. So, one very simple solution to meet the above goals was to offer jOOQ as Open Source with Open Source databases, and to offer jOOQ under a commercial license with commercial databases.
This was generally well received with our user base as a credible and viable dual-licensing model. But there were also caveats. All of a sudden, we didn’t have access to these distribution channels any more:
- Maven Central
… and our paying customers didn’t have access to these very useful OSS rights any more:
- Source Code
Solution 1 – Ship source code
Well, we actually ship our source code with the commercial binaries. At first, this was done merely for documentation purposes.
Regardless of the actual license constraints, when you’re in trouble, e.g. when your productive system is down and you have to urgently fix a bug, doesn’t it just suck if you don’t have access to the source code of third-party dependencies? You will just have to guess what it does. Or illegally de-compile it.
We don’t want to be that company. We trust our customers to deal responsibly with our source code.
Solution 2 – Allow modifications
Our commercial licenses come in two flavours: Yearly and Perpetual. We quickly realised that some of our customers do not want to be dependent on us as a vendor. Perpetual licenses obviously help making customers more independent.
But the disadvantage of perpetual licenses is the fact that vendors will not support old versions forever, and customers won’t have the right to upgrade to the next major release. While they are probably fine with not having access to new features, they would still like to receive an occasional bugfix.
The solution we’ve come to adopt is a very pragmatic one: Customers already have the source code (see above), so why not allow customers to also apply urgent fixes themselves? Obviously, such modifications will void the warranty offered by us, but if you buy jOOQ today and 5 years down the line, you discover a very subtle bug in what will then be an unsupported version of jOOQ… don’t you just want to fix it?
Dual-licensing is a tricky business. You partition your user-base into two:
- The paying / premium customers
- The “freemium” customers
By all means, you must prevent your premium customers from being at a disadvantage compared to your “freemium” customers. There are certain rights that are probably OK to remove (such as the right of free distribution). But there are rights that are just annoying not to have. And those rights are the rights that matter the most to the every day work of an engineer:
To fix that bloody bug :-)
We’re very curious: What are your opinions towards dual-licensing?