Amazon accused of 'strip mining' open source software

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Just before the start of the festive season shut-down in mid-December, the New York Times published a long article accusing one of the world’s largest technology companies – Amazon – of nefarious business practices.

Amazon reacted strongly, with Andi Gutmans, VP of Analytics and ElastiCache at Amazon Web Services (AWS) calling the NY Times article “skewed and misleading” as well as “silly and off-base”.

Referring to open source companies that it said had complained about Amazon’s business practices, which included benefiting by integrating open source software pioneered by others into its own products, the NYTimes wrote: “Some of the companies have a phrase for what Amazon is doing: strip-mining software. By lifting other people’s innovations, trying to poach their engineers and profiting off what they made, Amazon is choking off the growth of would-be competitors and forcing them to reorient how they do business.”

The article quotes Michael Howard, chief executive of open source company MariaDB, as saying “AWS’s success is built on strip-mining open-source technology.”

'Strip mining', although legal, is widely condemned by environmentalists for extracting minerals from the ground in a way that destroys the surrounding countryside and leaves behind nothing of value.

The use of the emotive term – also referred to as “open caste mining” – caused people to sit up and take notice.

The article was seemingly prompted by a case involving an Amsterdam-based open source company, Elastic, which has been trying to stop what it says is Amazon’s alleged rip-off of its open source search engine analytics product. Elastic’s case is that Amazon “misleads customers” by using name “AWS Elasticsearch” in its product.

This case is ongoing.

Gutmans noted that the story is largely focused on open source software projects and companies who’ve tried to build businesses around commercialising it. As they are open source projects, any company is allowed to utilise this software on-premises or in the cloud, and build services around it.

“AWS contributes mightily to open source projects (and) has not copied anybody’s software or services,” Gutmans said. 

He listed Elasticsearch and Open Distro for Elasticsearch as among such projects, alongside Linux, Java, Kubernetes, Chromium, Apache Lucene, Firecracker and Redis, among others.

Maintaining that AWS is purely giving customers what they want – managed services for popular open source projects including Elasticsearch – he added that while there were many companies that tried to build commercial businesses around open source projects that they either initiated or contributed to, there were a few “outliers” who saw this as a “zero-sum game”. They wanted to be the only ones allowed to freely monetise projects.

“As such, they have gone back and altered the open source licensing terms, co-mingled truly open source with proprietary code… This is not customer-focused, not what customers want, and not why customers started using the open source project in the first place,” Gutmans wrote.

“We (AWS) are committed to making sure that open source projects remain truly open and customers get to choose how they use that open source software – whether they choose AWS or not.”

Reaction to the accusations against Amazon and AWS has been mixed but seems to be weighed more in Amazon’s defence than otherwise. 

Most commentators appear to take the position that Amazon is being unfairly criticised for being successful at doing what many others have tired to do, many also successfully. This includes some of the companies the NYTimes article indicates are “victims” of Amazon’s “unfair practices”.

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