With the annual Kuali conference – Kuali Days – starting today in Indianapolis, the big topic should be the August decision to move from a community source to a professional open source model, moving key development to a commercial entity, the newly-formed KualiCo. Now there will be two new announcements for the community to discuss, both centering on a esoteric license choice that could have far-reaching implications. Both the announcement of the Ariah Group as a new organization to support Kuali products and the statement from the Apereo Foundation center on the difference between Apache-style and AGPL licenses.
AGPL and Vendor Protection
Kuali previously licensed its open source code as Educational Community License (ECL), a derivative of the standard Apache license that is designed to be permissive in terms of allowing organizations to contribute modified open source code while mixing with code with different licenses – including proprietary. This license is ‘permissive’ in the sense that the derived, remixed code may be licensed in different manners. It is generally thought that this license type gives the most flexibility for developing a community of contributors.
With the August pivot to Kuali 2.0 / KualiCo, the decision was made to fork and relicense any Kuali code that moves to KualiCo to use the Affero General Public License (AGPL), a derivative of the original GPL license and a form of “copyleft” licensing that allows derivative works but requires the derivatives to use the same license. Ideally the idea is to ensure that open source code remains open. No commercial entity can create derivative works and license with different terms.
The problem is when you have asymmetric AGPL licenses – where the copyright holder such as KualiCo does not have the same restrictions as all other users or developers of the code. Kuali has already announced that the multi-tenant cloud-hosting code to be developed by KualiCo will be proprietary and not open source. As the copyright holder, this is their right. Any school or Kuali vendor, however, that develops its own multi-tenant cloud-hosting code would have to
share this code back with KualiCo relicense and share this code publicly as open source. If you want to understand how this choice might create vendor lock-in, even using an open source license, go read Charles Severance’s post. Update: fixed wording about sharing requirements.
To their credit, the Kuali Foundation and KualiCo are very open about the intention of this license change, as described at Inside Higher Ed from a month ago.
[Barry] Walsh, who has been dubbed the “father of Kuali,” issued that proclamation after a back-and-forth with higher education consultant Phil Hill, who during an early morning session asked the Kuali leadership to clarify which parts of the company’s software would remain open source.
The short answer: everything — from the student information system to library management software — but the one thing institutions that download the software for free won’t be able to do is provide multi-tenant support (in other words, one instance of the software accessed by multiple groups of users, a feature large university systems may find attractive). To unlock that feature, colleges and universities need to pay KualiCo to host the software in the cloud, which is one way the company intends to make money.
“I’ll be very blunt here,” Walsh said. “It’s a commercial protection — that’s all it is.”
My post clarifying this interaction can be found here.
Enter Ariah Group
On Friday of last week, the newly formed Ariah Group sent out an email announcing a new support option for Kuali products.
Strong interest has been expressed in continuing to provide open source support for Kuali®products therefore The Ariah Group, a new nonprofit entity, has been established for those who wish to continue and enhance that original open source vision.
We invite you to join us. The community is open to participants of all kinds with a focus on making open source more accessible. The goal will be to deliver quality open source products for Finance, Human Resources, Student, Library, Research, and Continuity Planning. The Ariah Group will collaborate to offer innovative new products to enhance the suite and support the community. All products will remain open source and use the Apache License, Version 2.0 (http://opensource.org/licenses/Apache-2.0) for new contributions. A number of institutions and commercial vendors will be announcing their support in the coming days and weeks.
To join or learn more visit The Ariah Group at http://ariahgroup.org/
Who is the Ariah Group? While details are scarce, this new organization seems to be based on 2 – 3 current and former Kuali vendors. As can be seen from their incomplete website, the details have not been worked out. The group has identified an Executive Director, based on an email exchange I had with the company.
The only vendor that I can confirm is part of Ariah is Moderas, the former Kuali Commercial Affiliate that was removed as an official vendor in September (left or kicked out, depending on which side you believe; I’d say it was a mutual decision). I talked to Chris Thompson, co-founder of Moderas, who said that he understood the business rationale for the move to the Professional Open Source model but had a problem with the community aspects. The Kuali Foundation made a business decision to adopt AGPL and shift development to KualiCo, which makes sense in his telling, but the decision did not include real involvement from the Kuali Community. Chris sees that the situation has changed Kuali from a collaborative to a competitive environment, with KualiCo holding most of the cards.
This is the type of thinking behind the Ariah Group announcement – going back to the future. As described on the website:
We’ve been asked if we’re “branching the code” as we’ve discussed founding Ariah and our response has been that we feel that in fact the Kuali Foundation is branching with their new structure that includes a commercial entity who will set the development priorities and code standards that may deviate from the current Java technology stack in use. At Ariah our members will set the priorities as it was and as it should be in any truly open source environment. Java will always be our technology stack as we understand the burden that changing could cause a massive impact to our members.
This is an attempt to maintain some of the previous Kuali model including an Apache license (very close to ECL) and the same technology stack. But this approach raises two questions: How serious is this group (including whether they are planning to raise investment capital)? And why would Ariah expect to succeed when Kuali was unable to deliver on this model?
While this move by Ariah would have to be considered high risk, at least in its current form without funding secured or details worked out, it adds a new set of risks for Kuali itself as the Kuali Days conference begins. Kuali is in a critical period where the Foundation is seeking to get partner institutions to sign agreements to support KualiCo, contributing both cash and project staff. Based on input from multiple sources, only the University of Maryland has already signed a Memo of Understanding and agreed to this move for the Kuali Student project. Will the Ariah Group announcement cause schools to either reconsider upcoming decisions or even to just delay decisions. Will the Kuali project functional councils be influenced by this announcement on whether to move to the AGPL license.
I contacted Brad Wheeler, chair of the Kuali Foundation board, who added this comment:
Unlike many proprietary software models, Kuali was established with and continues with a software model that has always enabled institutional prerogative. Nothing new here.
In a separate but related announcement, this morning the Apereo Foundation (parent organization for Sakai, uPortal and other educational open source projects) released a statement on open source licenses.
Apereo supports the general ideas behind “copyleft” and believes that free software should stay free. However, Apereo is more interested in promoting widespread adoption and collaboration around its projects, and copyleft licenses can be a barrier to this. Specifically, the required reciprocity of copyleft licenses (like the GPL and AGPL) is viewed negatively by many potential adopters and contributors. Apereo also has a number of symbiotic relationships with other open source communities and projects with Apache-style licensing that would be hurt by copyleft licensing.
Apereo strongly encourages anyone who improves upon an Apereo project to contribute those changes back to the community. Contributing is mutually beneficial since the community gets a better project and the contributor does not have to maintain a diverging codebase. Apereo project governance bodies that feel licensing under the GPL or AGPL is necessary in their context can request permission from the Licensing & Intellectual Property Committee and the Apereo Foundation Board of Directors to select this copyleft approach to outbound licensing.
Apereo believes that the reciprocity in a copyleft open source software project should be symmetrical for everyone, specifically that all individuals and organizations involved should share any derivative works as defined in the selected outbound license. Apereo sponsored projects that adopt a copyleft approach to outbound licensing will be required to maintain fully symmetric reciprocity for all parties, including Apereo itself.
Those seeking further information on copyleft licensing, including potential pitfalls of asymmetric application, should read chapter 11 of the “Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide – Integrating the GPL into Business Practices”. This can be found at –
While Kuali would appear to be one of the triggers for this statement, there are other educational changes to consider such as the Open edX change from AGPL to Apache (reverse of Kuali) for its XBlock code. From the edX blog post describing this change:
The XBlock API will only succeed to the extent that it is widely adopted, and we are committed to encouraging broad adoption by anyone interested in using it. For that reason, we’re changing the license on the XBlock API from AGPL to Apache 2.0.
The Apache license is permissive: it lets adopters and extenders do what they want with their changes. They can release them under a copyleft license like AGPL, or a permissive license like Apache, or even keep them closed-source.
I’ll be interested to see any news or outcomes from the Kuali Days conference, and these two announcements should affect the license discussions at the conference. What I have found interesting is that in most of my conversations with Kuali community people ,even for those who are disillusioned, they seem to think the KualiCo creation makes some sense. The real frustration and pushback has been on how decisions are made, how decisions have been communicated, and how the AGPL license choice will affect the community.
It’s too early to tell if the Ariah Group will have any significant impact on the Kuali community or not, but the issue of license types should have a growing importance in educational technology discussions moving forward.