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

Elementthe company and lead developer behind the decentralized communications protocol known as Matrixannounced a notable licensing change that will make the open source project a little less attractive to companies looking to build on it.

The London-based company revealed that the main Matrix server, Synapse; its alternative server implementation Dendrites; and various associated server-side projects such as the Sydent identity server, are all switching from permissive mode Apache 2.0 License At Affero General Public License (AGPL)v3.

Client-side projects developed by Element will not be affected by these changes.


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

“Today, we have reached a crossroads: We have managed to make Matrix a smash success, but Element is losing its ability to compete in the very ecosystem it created,” Element wrote in a statement . blog post Today. “It is difficult 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 cost of maintaining the core of Matrix. In order to be fair to our customers, we need to be able to focus more on them and their specific requirements.

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

Enter the matrix

As a quick recap, Matrix was originally developed within a software company Amdocs by Matthew Hodgson and Amandine Le Pape in 2014, before leaving to focus on developing Matrix as an independent open source project. At the same time, the duo also sought to commercialize Matrix, originally through a company called New Vector what was later renamed Element. About five years ago, Hodgson and The Pope launched the Foundation to support all things Matrix, including protecting its intellectual property, managing donations, and promoting the Matrix protocol.

So Element is essentially Matrix’s poster child, used by businesses and governments looking for more secure messaging and internal communications than those offered by American tech giants. And everyone is free to use the underlying Matrix protocol to create their own decentralized applications. For example, back in 2021the agency charged with digitizing the German healthcare system began the transition to Matrixso that thousands of individual entities, from hospitals to insurance companies and clinics, can all communicate with each other, regardless of which Matrix-based application they use.

With Europe moving forward with new regulations stipulating that big tech platforms need to make their messaging apps play off each other, and the Twitter debacle highlight the need for social networks that do not lock users inthis has strongly positioned companies such as Element – ​​and the Matrix protocol it is developing.

The Matrix project recently announcement that at least 115 million users communicate via the protocol, almost double the number from the previous year. The same day, Automattic, parent company of, revealed that it had purchased all-in-one messaging app for 50 million dollarsbuilding on other recent efforts to embrace interoperability – this included the purchase of an ActivityPub plugin to help blogs join the decentralized “Fediverse”. It should also be noted that Automattic invested in Element through several funding cycles over the years.

All of which brings us to today, with Element changing the terms of engagement, placing greater responsibility 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 managing user accounts, message history, chat rooms, etc. In its current release of Apache 2.0, developers and businesses were free to use Synapse however they wanted, including deploying it in fully proprietary, closed-source applications. This is why the Apache 2.0 license is an attractive proposition for enterprises and large technology companies, as they have more or less complete freedom.

The new AGPL license, however, is what is called “copyleft”, meaning that any derivative project using Synapse will have to be released under a similar AGPL license. Of course, this forces companies to stick to the spirit of open source, but at the same time it is less attractive to companies that do not want to create their own open source software.

Bait and switch

There are many recent examples of companies changing their license to protect their commercial interests, including Elastic in 2021. who switched Apache 2.0’s Elasticsearch has a duo of available source licenses — this was intended to prevent third parties such as AWS from offering their own version of Elasticsearch “as a service” to their own customers, especially when they don’t bring nothing significant. back to the project itself.

Likewise, Grafana transitioned its main product, from Apache 2.0 to AGPL, retaining its core technology as open source projects but forcing its users to make a decision: “adopt the open source ethic in its entirety, or pay us for our hard work”, that is the general idea. And that’s essentially what Element does now.

“The benefit of moving to AGPLv3 is that it requires downstream developers to contribute to the main project – either by publishing their changes as open source for the benefit of the entire Matrix ecosystem, or by contacting Element for a alternative license,” Element wrote. . “We believe this is the fairest possible approach: 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 as is on the GitHub domain, raising the possibility that a third party decides to fork them and continue to maintain them under their current open source license. However, this would be a resource-intensive endeavor that few companies would be likely to pursue, especially since all of Matrix’s current developers will now primarily work for Element.

It also raises questions about “what now” for the Matrix Foundation, which has until now been responsible for managing the Matrix project. In a separate blog postThe Matrix Foundation said it refused to “compete with an actively maintained open source project” and, while still unsure of its future, suggested that R&D might be an avenue worth exploring.

“As things currently stand, the Foundation has no plans to begin funding active development of the current Synapse and Dendrite projects,” the organization wrote. “Even if it made sense to us, we don’t have the resources. That said, the Foundation has a role in funding research and development of open source software for the Matrix ecosystem. We believe the most effective way to fulfill this role is to fill the gaps. With this principle in mind, we direct our scarce resources towards things like trust and safety and the provision of community infrastructure.

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