A new license for n8n

We have decided to change from our current license - Apache 2.0 with Commons Clause - to a new, custom license. The main motivations for making this change are:

  1. to make it clearer to people what use is restricted
  2. to be more permissive: the Commons Clause restricts people’s from charging fees for consulting and support: services we want to freely allow and encourage

We will be announcing the change later this month, but wanted to give you some advance notice. We have been consulting with a few community members, as well as software licensing lawyers on making this change, but are open to more input! So if you want to provide feedback, please send a PM to @claudianotclaud. Thanks!

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Looking forward. Is the $30,000 threshold still in game?

No, everyone can then do consulting and support without any limit.

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I’m very interested to see what you have come up with. The current license always struck me as, well, “fair”, despite not being technically “open source”. I’m very curious to see what refinements have been made after last few years experience.

Do you anticipate that this new license could be generalized to apply to other products/projects besides N8N? As a developer, I like the idea of having options for how I want to share my work with the world, and fair-code seems like a good choice in some use cases.

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That is great to hear! Did you already reach out to @claudianotclaud?

Yes, the license is written in a way that it can be used by others. It is based on the amazing Elastic License 2.0. Elastic welcomes others to reuse and extend their license to fit different needs, and so do obviously we!

Generally, do we hope for sure that the license, as we have written it, will also be adopted by others and help the fair-code movement. Writing a new license, and even just adopting one (like we did) is a lot of work, and the fewer people and companies have to go through it, and rather can spend their energy on other things, the better.

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We now officially changed our license to the new Sustainable Use License. More information about it can be found in the following blog post:

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Hi @jan

I think the license is fair and makes sense.
Have one question for you.

I plan on doing some consulting work for companies with n8n.
Because we of course want companies to have an easy transition into n8n, we would start with the desktop app. But eventually, they will need a server.
Some of them might have the possibility of running their own server. Some of them won’t.

Would it be allowed for me to get cloud hosting specifically for that company and set up an n8n server for them? And just charge the Cloud hosting costs straight to them? As I understand I would not be allowed to charge extra for that. Neither do I want to.

Having them get the cloud hosting for themselves would be a solution, but would make things a little bit more of a burden for the client. I wish to unburden them on that level as well.

The use of n8n cloud would be possible to use for some clients, but not all. As I have a BI background, I will also use n8n to create workflows with some higher data throughput. Which n8n cloud cannot handle at the moment.

Hope my question is clear.

In this case, is it important who “owns” the server. If the server is in the name of your customer and you set up n8n for a fee and also charge for maintaining it, then it would be OK. If the server would however be yours, then it would not be allowed, as in this case, you would offer a hosted version of n8n.

I know it maybe sounds strange and even stupid, but the reason behind it is the following:
If it would be allowed, then everybody would say that they actually do not charge people for n8n, they only charge for the other service X they have. n8n is rather included for free, or they just charge them the hosting cost. Meaning it would totally destroy our whole n8n.embed offering and so the way we want to make money and why we created that license in the first place.

I hope that makes sense.

You can however reach out via [email protected] . We are then maybe able to find a way for you and other people which have planned the same.

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@jan You write that the new license is “more permissive”. The opposite seems to be the case. The new license is actually LESS permissive.

The former license was Apache 2.0 with Commons Clause. With this license, we were able to provide a hosted version of n8n as an additional service to the customers of our main product, as long as we didn’t charge them an extra for this.

The official website of the Commons Clause license states this clearly:

[…] you may embed and redistribute Commons Clause software in a larger product, and you may distribute and even “sell” (which includes offering as a commercial SaaS service) your product.

Source

The new license clearly prohibits this by limiting any redistribution or hosting to “non-commercial” purposes:

You may distribute the software or provide it to others only if you do so free of charge for non-commercial purposes.

Source

Through enforcing this new license you are effectively killing any real competition to your own SaaS offering (and not just of your embed offering) by forcing competitors into a licensing agreement (and we saw that license before and we were not happy with it).

It also creates an uneven playing field. Any competitor to your own cloud offering has higher costs than you because they have to submit parts of their revenue to you. This is similar to the situation with Apple and their app store monopoly. It is also hard to compete there with Apple’s own apps because any competitor has to deliver a cut to Apple while apple is not paying these fees for their own apps.

This is bad for the n8n ecosystem in our opinion because it hinders competition and makes it less attractive for external developers like us to contribute. And there are many examples of ecosystems that thrive when there is real open source involved, like WordPress, Mautic, Matomo, Metabase or Cal. com.

It’s sad that n8n wants to take a different route.

you write that the new license is “more permissive”. The opposite seems to be the case. The new license is actually LESS permissive.

That is not true. We NEVER allowed anybody to offer a hosted version of n8n without license. Our FAQ said from the beginning “For instance, one cannot charge others to host or support n8n.” (old docs). And what confuses me even more is that we have been in contact in December 2020 exactly for that reason. We had a video call on the 7th of December 2020 and exchanged multiple emails afterward to get such a license. So you were very aware back then of that limitation, so wonder why you now claim that hosting was possible before without a license.

The official website of the Commons Clause.

The Commons Clause license text says:

For purposes of the foregoing, “Sell” means practicing any or all of the rights granted to you under the
License to provide to third parties, for a fee or other consideration (including without limitation fees for
hosting or consulting/ support services related to the Software), a product or service whose value
derives, entirely or substantially, from the functionality of the Software. Any license notice or attribution
required by the License must also include this Commons Clause License Condition notice.

And this is exactly how we read it (as it is written like that). Hosting is not allowed. That their FAQ says for some strange and unknown reason exactly the opposite than the license text, does not make any sense at all. But exactly that, was one of the reasons why we moved away from the Commons Clause as it was unnecessarily confusing people.

Through enforcing this new license you are effectively killing any real competition to your own SaaS offering (and not just of your embed offering) by forcing competitors into a licensing agreement (and we saw that license before and we were not happy with it).

No, we are not killing it, we are just demanding that they pay if they want to offer one. And you are right, we are forcing them to sign such a licensing agreement in that case. That is, after all the whole reason why we created that license. So should be not very surprising.

It also creates an uneven playing field.

Also totally disagree here. I would actually say we are more leveling it, and are making sure that some money that gets made with it, flows back into the project.

If another company creates a hosted offering of n8n, what they have to do is (very simplified):

1: build hosted offering

That is actually it, they are done. They can put 100% of their resources and money into that one piece.

If we create a hosted offering, it is a little bit different:

1: build n8n
2: add new features
3: create new nodes
4: fix bugs
5: provide support to the whole community

100: build hosted offering

Does that sound even to you? With our license agreement, we make sure that those companies are paying their fair share for all the other parts. And it is pretty much in their interest. After all, do they depend on it, so paying some money back to the company which pushes the project forward, does not sound too strange to me.

So I wonder why do you have a problem with paying for it? Nobody complains when they have to pay a lot of money for a Photoshop license or pay monthly a lot for Notion, Slack, and co. But if we allow people to use n8n totally for free but want some share when they want to make money of it, it is bad?

And our license terms are also perfectly fair. We normally charge a 30% revenue share. Meaning we receive 30%, and the partner keeps 70%. So the majority of the money made of n8n stays actually with the partner. That also means that if a partner does not make any money, they do not pay a single cent (is after all revenue share). If they make $100 they pay $30, if they make $10k they pay $3k and for that, they can use code in which literally millions of dollars get invested.

Honestly do also not understand where the notion comes from that people have to be able to make money with the n8n code in the first place?
Just because we make our code public, allow everybody to use it totally for free, and additionally try to give also amazing and free support to everybody, does not mean that people have to be able to commercialize it for free. We (and esp. I from the first day) have always been 100% upfront about what use cases we allow, and which ones not. So can not understand why anybody could complain and demand even more. I deliberately did NOT make the code “OSI approved open-source” on purpose.

This is bad for the n8n ecosystem in our opinion because it hinders competition and makes it less attractive for external developers like us to contribute. And there are many examples of ecosystems that thrive when there is real open source involved, like WordPress, Mautic, Matomo, Metabase or Cal. com.

Many different kinds of companies and projects exist with very different buisness models. The ones you listed, are for sure the more successful ones for which it worked out well. There are however also many thousands where that is not the case. There almost all the money does end up with external companies rather than making it back to the project. Sure, some of that companies contribute sometimes some code or fix some bugs, but I can tell, that it would be better if the project would have received money instead. After all, do they have the big picture in mind. They push the project forward and work on things which have the biggest impact. The external companies obviously spend resources only on the things which are important for them, some edge case bug or some feature that literally notbody else needs. I have never seen that comanies come and say “hey, what shall we work on next”, they are very self serving (which I can also understand).
And I am sure, that if you check all of the projects you listed above you will see that almost all of the code which does still get written today is written by the company behind the project.
So for that reason, do I actually think it is great for the n8n ecosystem as it makes sure that we have the resources we need to work on n8n and push it forward. Like that are we able to work on the important things, rather than being dependent on some external companies sometimes pushing some code in our direction if their internal resources did allow it because the pain became big enough.

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@jan You were saying:

so wonder why you now claim that hosting was possible before without a license.

And this is exactly how we read it (as it is written like that). Hosting is not allowed. That their FAQ says for some strange and unknown reason exactly the opposite than the license text, does not make any sense at all.

That’s not right. The Commons Clause license does not prohibit you to HOST a software. It just prohibits you to SELL it. That’s a huge difference.

Here’s the full text of the Commons Clause license, so we all see what we are talking about here:

The Software is provided to you by the Licensor under the
License, as defined below, subject to the following condition.

Without limiting other conditions in the License, the grant
of rights under the License will not include, and the License
does not grant to you, the right to Sell the Software.

For purposes of the foregoing, “Sell” means practicing any or all of the rights granted to you under the License to provide to third parties, for a fee or other consideration (including without limitation fees for hosting or consulting/ support services related to the Software), a product or service whose value derives, entirely or substantially, from the functionality of the Software. Any license notice or attribution required by the License must also include this Commons Clause License Condition notice.

Source: commonsclause.com

Selling is defined in the license as “provide to third parties, for a fee or other consideration”. So if you are hosting the software for others for free, you are not selling it and therefore allowed to do so.

Additionally, the license only applies to offering a product which value “derives, entirely or substantially, from the functionality of the Software”.

So if you offer a product where n8n is just a part of a much larger offering, you were even allowed to charge money for it under the former license!

And I am not misinterpreting the Commons Clause license here. It is intended like this. The FAQ on the official homepage of the Commons Clause license clearly states this:

This is not a new concept. It’s similar to “value-add” requirements in many licenses. For example let’s say you use a library containing numerical algorithms from Rogue Wave Software. Can you create an application with the library and sell the application? Yes. Can you offer that application as SaaS and charge for it? Yes. Can you change the name of the library and change some function names and sell the library or offer it as SaaS? No.

Source: commonsclause.com

So, under the previous Commons Clause license:

  • Can you create a (much more comprehensive) application with n8n as a (smaller) part of it and sell the application? Yes.
  • Can you offer that application as SaaS and charge for it? Yes.
  • Can you change the name of n8n and change some function names and sell the library or offer it as SaaS? No.

Therefore, I don’t understand that you claim the opposite here despite certainly knowing better.

The former license was definitely more permissive than your new so-called “Sustainable Use License”.

P.S. And just as a side note to everyone reading along: all previous versions of n8n have been released under the Apache 2.0 with Commons Clause license and can continue to be used or forked and developed under this license indefinitely. The new license only applies to versions of n8n released since the introduction of the new “Sustainable Use License”.

Exactly, you are right. If you offer a hosted n8n instance totally for free for everybody, it is OK.

What is not OK, is to offer it for “free” just to people that pay you. Because then it is not free anymore (as they pay, which is actually the opposite of free). So you can not charge people for service X, then claim that n8n gets included for “free” into that paid offering and so try to bypass that. If n8n gets included in a paid offering (even if you do not charge for it separately) it becomes part of that paid offering. If that would be allowed, people could charge $100 a month for a “good wish” and include “for free” with that wish a hosted version of n8n. I would say that sounds a little bit off.
In your case, you would then charge people for your Friendly Analytics (hosted version of Matomo) or your Friendly Automate (hosted version of Mautic) and then “include n8n for free” with those.

What is also very surprising to me, is that somebody that calls his company “friendly.is” tries so hard to not pay their fair share, ignores the wishes of the creator, and tries to find loopholes wherever possible. Words like “fair” and “friendly” mean for sure very different things for people. It depends a lot on their upbringing, cultural background, and other factors but that kind of behavior does not sound “friendly” to me. So I am really surprised and saddened by that. Ignoring if I like the way you make money or not (after all did the projects allow that usage by using a very permissive license, so would say it is a gray-area) but posts I saw on LinkedIn (where we are connected) sounded like you generally tried to be and act “friendly”. So this whole threat really does not make much sense to me and I would never have expected it.

And btw. because of this whole threat, I also assume you would be a person who would not call n8n “open source” as it is not using an “OSI approved open-source” license. So according to your own manifest point 3 (All our products are open source) would that exclude n8n anyway. Meaning this whole discussion seems totally pointless to me, as your company would not even be able to use n8n. If I am wrong and you disagree here, you are very welcome to join the long discussion that was going on on GitHub and advocate for n8n being allowed to use that term (and just to make that clear, we are not using that term).

You are also right that all versions before the license change can still be used under the Apache 2.0 with Commons Clause. I think we just disagree with what that means exactly.

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And just one short addition, as I do not think this discussion should go on much longer.

I think it is actually very simple.
When I created n8n I have been 100% upfront about what usage I allow and which one not. I simply ask people to respect that and not try to find legal loopholes. That is simply the right and correct thing to do.
After all, if people disagree they are not forced to use n8n or to contribute in any way.

I do not know why but for some reason people think that public written code has to be different from public written words. If somebody has a blog, people can read and enjoy it. Everybody is aware and OK that they can not simply commercialize it by for example selling it as a book. Is the same with n8n. People can use and enjoy it as much as they want, they can just not commercialize it.

So I ask you and all people to please respect my and the company’s wish. Thanks!

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Well, this makes me pay more attention to lisences.
I read commons clause and n8n new lisence

  1. I feel commons clause is more clear and easier to understand
    It uses “key” is “value-add” to know how to use product

    The Commons Clause was drafted by a group of developers behind many of the world’s most popular open source projects who feel a lot of pain and pressure from a rapidly-developing business ecosystem and the realities of the cost of developing projects. It wasn’t created to end open source, but start a conversation on what we can do to meet the financial needs of commercial software projects and the communities behind them.

  2. Sustainable Use License seems do not have much experience in this. It makes me do not know how to use product exactly. Could you tell your “key” in a word simply?

    • In fact, it 's very hard to seperate non-commercial or commercial actions. N8n is a automation functions which is helps me many in internal. But how you could know what is different in internal and revenue everyday in all workflow automation? The smaller business is, the more difficult you feels to use product. Sometime, it makes me worried to upgrade to this lisence.
    • You know, if you want to protect your product, you must invest much more than current product. Like books, amazon protected it just when they could invest into kindle.

This is something I could see when I try to understand all of this.