Decentralized communication protocol Matrix shifts to less-permissive AGPL open source license

Element, the company and core developer behind the decentralized communication protocol known as Matrix, has announced a notable license change that will make the open source project just that little bit less appealing for companies looking to build on top of it.

The London-based company revealed that the core Matrix server, Synapse, its alternative server implementation Dendrite and various related server-side projects such as the Sydent identity server are all transitioning from the permissive Apache 2.0 license to the Affero General Public License (AGPL) v3.

Client-side projects developed by Element will remain unaffected by these changes.

Cost

Element said that the cost of maintaining Matrix, to which it claims to make more than 95% of all code contributions, has forced it to rethink its strategy and create a “level playing field.” This comes at a time when decentralization and interoperability are becoming greater priorities for governments, enterprises and consumers across the board.

“Today we have arrived at a crossroads — we have succeeded in making Matrix wildly successful, but Element is losing its ability to compete in the very ecosystem it has created,” Element wrote in a blog post today. “It is hard for Element to innovate and adapt as quickly as companies whose business model is developing proprietary Matrix-based products and services without the responsibility and costs of maintaining the bulk of Matrix. In order to be fair to our customers, we need to be able to put more focus on them and their specific requirements.”

TechCrunch reached out to Element and Matrix co-creator Matthew Hodgson to get some clarification on which companies were using versions of the Matrix protocol without contributing back to the project. And more importantly, whether they tried alternative courses of action prior to switching the license.

“I’m afraid we’re not going to name and shame the companies who are profiting from Matrix without contributing back — mainly because we’re currently politely trying to sort them out with alternative licensing so their forks can continue,” Hodgson explained. “However yes — we did try working with all of them to get financial or in-kind contributions to the Matrix project, with limited success [which is why] we’ve had to take these measures instead.”

In the coming days, Element said it will introduce new repositories under its own organization’s GitHub domain containing forks of those that currently exist on the Matrix.org GitHub domain.

Enter the Matrix

By way of a brief recap, Matrix was initially developed inside software company Amdocs by Hodgson and Amandine Le Pape back in 2014, before they left to focus on growing Matrix as an independent open source project. In tandem, the duo also sought to commercialize Matrix, originally through a company called New Vector which was later rebranded as Element. Some five years ago, Hodgson and Le Pape also launched the Matrix.org Foundation to support all-things Matrix, including protecting its intellectual property, managing donations and driving the Matrix protocol forward.

So Element is essentially the flagship poster child of Matrix, used by enterprises and governments looking for more secure messaging and in-house communication than that offered by the U.S. tech giants. And anyone is free to take the underlying Matrix protocol to build their own decentralized applications. For instance, back in 2021, the agency responsible for digitalizing Germany’s healthcare system started transitioning to Matrix, so that the thousands of individual entities from hospitals to insurance companies and clinics could all communicate with each other, irrespective of which Matrix-based app they used.

With Europe pushing ahead with new regulations stipulating that big tech platforms need to make their messaging apps play ball with each other, and the Twitter debacle shining a light on the need for social networks that don’t lock users in, this has positioned companies such as Element — and the Matrix protocol it develops — strongly.

The Matrix project recently announced that at least 115 million users communicate via the protocol, nearly double the previous year’s number. On that very same day, WordPress.com parent Automattic revealed that it had bought all-in-one messaging app Texts.com for $50 million, building on other efforts it has made of late to embrace interoperability — this included buying an ActivityPub plug-in to help blogs join the decentralized “Fediverse.” It’s also worth noting that Automattic has invested in Element across several funding rounds through the years.

This all brings us to today, with Element switching the terms of engagement, placing greater onus on developers to contribute to the project… or pay Element for a commercial license to continue using it.

Synapse is the most widely used server implementation of Matrix, responsible for handling user accounts, message history, chat rooms and more. In its current Apache 2.0 guise, developers and companies were free to use Synapse however they wished — including deploying it in entirely proprietary, closed-source applications. This is why the Apache 2.0 license is an appealing proposition for enterprises and big tech companies, as they more or less have complete freedom.

The new AGPL license, however, is what is known as “copyleft,” meaning that any derivative projects that use Synapse would need to be released under a similar AGPL license. So while it forces companies to stick to the spirit of open source, it’s less appealing for businesses that don’t want to make their own software open source.

Bait and switch

There have been many recent examples of companies switching their licensing to protect their business interests, including Elastic back in 2021 which switched Elasticsearch from Apache 2.0 to a duo of source available licenses — this was to prevent third-parties such as AWS from offering their own version of Elasticsearch “as-a-service” to their own customers, particularly when they don’t contribute anything meaningful back to the project itself.

And HashiCorp recently did something similar with Terraform, too.

However, Element’s actions are slightly different to these, insofar as Element can’t be accused of abandoning open source — AGPLv3 is a recognized open source license, even though not everyone is a fan of its inherent restrictions. Grafana also transitioned its core product from Apache 2.0 to AGPL a couple of years back, keeping its main technology open source but forcing its users to make a decision: “embrace the open source ethos in its entirety, or pay us for our hard work,” was the general idea. And that essentially is what Element is now doing too.

“The benefit of switching to AGPLv3 is that it obliges downstream developers to contribute back to the core project — either by releasing their modifications as open source for the benefit of the whole Matrix ecosystem, or by contacting Element for an alternative license,” Element wrote. “We believe this is the fairest approach possible: preserving the Free and Open Source nature of these Matrix implementations under an OSI-approved open source license (AGPLv3), while encouraging proprietary forks to contribute to the development costs of the underlying project.”

The existing Synapse and Dendrite repositories will remain on the Matrix.org GitHub domain, raising the possibility that a third-party may decide to fork them and continue maintaining them under a similar open source license. However, that would be a resource-intensive endeavor, one that few companies would be likely to pursue particularly given that all the current Matrix developers will essentially be working for Element now.

“I think that the only companies motivated to fork are those who want to keep the code liberally licensed so that they can make proprietary forks of it,” Hodgson told TechCrunch. “And given they’re in the business of selling proprietary forks, they are unlikely to be wanting to be providing a liberally licensed fork for the benefit of everyone else.”

This also raises questions about “what now” for the Matrix Foundation, which thus far has been tasked with stewarding the Matrix project. In a separate blog post, the Matrix Foundation said it will decline to “compete with an actively maintained open source project,” and while it still isn’t sure about its future, it suggested that R&D might be one avenue it could explore.

However, Hodgson brought some clarity to the situation, explaining that the Foundation will remain “critical as a guardian of the protocol itself,” pointing to the fact that there are several hundred additional Matrix projects, encryption implementations, client SDKs, bridges, and more that fall under the auspices of the Foundation. Plus, Element is still the primary funder of the Matrix Foundation.

“It’s only a handful of projects which are shifting back to Element — and I’d argue that the Foundation is more important than ever now in order to safeguard the core protocol,” Hodgson said. “The Foundation acts as the standards body for Matrix, and just as W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is critical for the web and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) is critical for the internet, so is the Matrix Foundation critical for the success of Matrix.”

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