- Open source licensing lawyer Heather Meeker, one of Business Insider’s 100 people transforming business, has helped companies like MongoDB, Redis Labs, and Confluent write new software licenses.
- These companies changed their licenses in response to cloud vendors like Amazon Web Services selling the software they created — which is completely legal.
- Meeker discusses the controversy around these licenses from advocates who say they go against the definition of open source.
- Meeker helps open source software startups find a middle ground as they strive to create a business model that works.
- See the full list of Business Insider’s 100 people transforming business here.
Heather Meeker has seen her share of career changes. She’s been a software programmer and a drummer in a rock band. Now, she’s very likely the most prominent lawyer working specifically with the world of open source software.
She’s made a name for herself as one of the top experts in the field, especially in the last year. Companies like MongoDB, Redis Labs, and Confluent turned to Meeker to help them write new, more restrictive licenses that prevent big cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, Alibaba, and Tencent from using their code freely.
She calls 2018 a “watershed year” for these new licenses, which sparked fierce debate in the open source software community. The companies in question argued that while it’s completely legal for the big tech companies to take open source code and resell it as a commercial service for profit, it’s not especially fair — especially since Amazon, in particular, is seen as not contributing enough code back to the open source communities in return.
“[These companies] were concerned about cloud providers free riding on their development efforts without sharing their modifications,” Meeker told Business Insider. “They were concerned about sustaining a business and big companies were just using it for free and making a lot of money from making it available for others. They thought, that’s a business problem for us.”
The result, as we’ve seen over the last several months, is a dramatic industry-wide debate over the future of open source: Some companies have chosen to find new monetization models for open source, while others have doubled down and actually released their entire product line-up as open source code.
Besides her licensing work, Meeker is involved in the startup scene as a founding portfolio partner at OSS Capital, a VC firm specifically aimed at commercial open source software startups. She helps these startups with their business and licensing models, helping them solve a problem that’s now decades-old: How do you make money with a business built on free, open source software?
“I’ve always understood that you could make money doing open source development, but there were a lot of people who were really skeptical for a long time,” Meeker said. “You can make money with an open source business very effectively if you plan it properly.”
“Flavor of the month”
Meeker graduated from Yale in 1978 and spent the early ’80s as a programmer. Her degree is in economics, but she learned to program on her own as a child, picking up some basics from her computer scientist father.
“I was a nerd. I love technology all my life,” Meeker said. “I learned about it at an early age which at the time was very unusual.”
After five years as a programmer, she says she became bored. At the time, she was developing accounting applications, and felt that she had hit a roadblock in her career. So instead, she pursued what she says was her first passion, and became a musician. She was a drummer and a leader of a band that played blues, college radio rock, and anything people wanted them to play.
It was a good time, she says, but it didn’t pay the bills.
“It’s easy to explain why I changed from being a musician to a lawyer,” Meeker said. “I wanted health insurance. It was fun, but it was not a career. Compared to other lawyers, I deeply appreciate the practice of law as a career because I’ve been through something much more difficult. I have loved being a lawyer much more than I expected.”
She went into law school at UC Berkeley, thinking she would combine law with music and entertainment to become an entertainment lawyer. But soon enough, she realized interesting things were cropping up in technology law, and she changed course.
As a lawyer, she started off doing intellectual property and licensing. It wasn’t until a couple years later when she discovered the niche field of open source licensing — open source software is, by definition, free for anybody to use and modify, but licensing is a crucial element that controls what’s allowed and what isn’t, legally speaking.
“I set out to learn all I could about it,” Meeker said. “In any organization, if you learn a little bit more than the person in the next office, you’re the expert. Then they came to me with questions, so I learned more about it. Open source to me is really an interesting thing to focus on.”
Meeker expected open source to be like a “flavor of the month;” a fad that would eventually disappear. But it never did.
‘A clash of ideologies’
Today, using open source is the rule in the modern software industry, rather than the exception, Meeker says. The world is embracing open source, and more clients have asked her about it. They wanted to use open source software, but they weren’t sure how — and when she first started, most corporate counsels simply advised clients to stay away.
“I thought there has to be a better answer than ‘no,'” Meeker said. “I thought there has to be a ‘yes, if.’ That’s how I started my practice by trying not to say no. If you want to be a good business lawyer, you have to give your clients more practical and nuanced advice.”
Generally, her clients want to make sure they’re in compliance with open source licenses when they use or modify the code. Some clients want to learn how to set up a foundation to run an open source project of their own, or they may have a dispute over the interpretation of a license. Lately, she’s been involved in writing new software licenses.
“Most open source licenses don’t have any requirements until you distribute the software,” Meeker said. “The advent of cloud computing has changed how people deploy software. A lot of people are asking what is that activity that invokes distribution of open source. There is some sort of doctrinal ambiguity about it.”
These new licenses have been controversial, as free software activists argue that some of the licenses she’s helped write go against the definition of open source. Meeker says she cannot comment on her clients directly, but that she only does what she’s been asked to do.
More broadly, Meeker says, open source startups are only seeking new ways to protect their business, and that change always comes as a shock to any community.
“Some software that was previously open source became not open source, so people didn’t like that,” Meeker said. “There was also a clash of ideologies. You have some people who are free software advocates who object to anyone who uses anything but a free software license, and you have businesses saying we can’t sustain a business with a free software license.”
A problem, she says, is that advocates, developers, and businesses may all have different ideas on what open source should be. For those advocates, open source is an ideal, while developers find it to be an easier way to work together on large software projects. Open source software-based businesses have to balance these principles, while also finding ways to make money.
In theory, these “ideologies,” can’t meet, Meeker says, but in practice, they’re combined all the time. For example, most of these companies follow a so-called “open core model,” which means that they have a free version of their software, and sell an enterprise version that carries more features for businesses and other power users.
Meeker says that it’s important to find these moments of balance as a way to grow the overall open source community, commensurate with its outsized impact in the world.
“In open source world, there’s a lot of philosophical debate that gets very contentious,” Meeker said. “While it’s important to air ideas and have debate, to people outside who are looking in and are not thinking about open source issues everyday, it’s very confusing and concerning to them. I would like to see open source be a big tent instead of a little tent.”