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Lightbend Changes Licensing Model for Akka Amid Accusations of 'Cakeism'

Lightbend, the company behind the Scala JVM language and developer of the Reactive Platform, is changing the license on its Akka technology from Apache 2.0 to the BSL v1.1 (Business Source License), starting with Akka v2.7, which is set for release in October.

Under the new licensing model, companies with an annual income of less than $25m will not be required to pay license fees for production usage of Akka, though a $0 commercial license must still be granted by Lightbend, the company says. Organizations with annual revenue exceeding $25m will be required to pay for a license plus a subscription for production usage. Back-porting of any software released under the new license is not permitted.

Previously available via an open-core license, Akka is a toolkit for building highly concurrent, distributed, and resilient message-driven applications for Java and Scala. Akka has spread far and wide since Swedish programmer Jonas Bonér (now the company's CEO) pushed out the first public release back in 2009. The company now includes some big names on its Akka user list, including Apple, Disney, GM, HPE, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Starbucks, and Tesla.

More than a few in the open-source community were not happy to hear about this decision. When the licensing change was announced, accusations of "cakeism" began appearing on social media (as in, "they want to have their cake and eat it, too"), along with assertions that this and other companies implementing similar license adjustments could no longer claim to be true open-source vendors.  

But this seems to have been a pragmatic decision by the company to address an existential moment for this enormously popular project that goes beyond ideology.

"We have decided to change Akka’s license to ensure a healthy balance between all parties, shared responsibility, and, by extension, contribute to Akka’s future development," Bonér said in a blog post. "This will enable Akka to remain at the forefront of building innovative solutions that are used by many globally recognized brands to build and run some of their most business-critical applications."

I talked with Lightbend EVP Brad Murdoch about the new licensing scheme. "Akka is an old project by open-source standards," he told me. "More and more organizations have gotten very comfortable with the idea that they can use this infrastructure and just not pay anything for it. We've had an open-core model and we've generated revenue by adding commercial software and services around the core product, but we've reached a point where there's too great a mismatch between the importance of the software and the users' willingness to invest in it."

The BSL was developed by the creators of the MariaDB relational database management system, David Axmark and Michael Widenius, to provide a "mutually beneficial balance between the user benefits of true Open Source software that is free of cost and provides open access to all of the product code for modification, distribution, etc., and the sustainability needs of software developers to continue delivering product innovation and maintenance," the company's website reads.

As Lightbend is implementing it, the BSL unfolds in two stages:

  1. Commercial: Software is viewable (source available), downloadable, and usable in non-production environments. Production usage requires a software license from Lightbend.
  1. Open-source: After three years, the source for that version will be released under the current Apache 2.0 license. A customizable "additional use grant" is also available, which allows usage for other open-source software (such as Lightbend's Play Framework).

The Apache 2.0 license is a "permissive" (as opposed to "copyleft') open-source, license written by the Apache Software Foundation. It allows licensees to use of the software for any purpose, distribute it, modify it, and distribute modified versions of it under the terms of the license, without paying royalties.

Lightbend has been briefing its customers quietly about the new licensing plan for a few weeks, and Murdock says the feedback has been "pretty balanced."

"There have been people who are up in arms, calling us a traitor to open-source," he said. "But there are others who recognize that there will be no Akka without engineers to pay to work on it, because it doesn't just happen magically."

"There has to be a model for sustainable open-source, and whether this is the right one or not, I can't speak for the industry," he added. "But we had to find a model that allowed us to monetize the software that people are using to run the world. We want to be able to invest in the future of Akka, and we looked at a number of different licenses, and the BSL fit the situation best."

Posted by John K. Waters on September 8, 2022