Open Sourcing of Obsidian

Proprietary development in secret is somehow better? I’d much rather know what’s going into my app (and how), than it be hidden away. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and all… (I’m not arguing it’s better than open source, just a better alternative than being completely closed.)

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I know it’s not really a rational thought but it feels a bit wrong that they would profit from merge requests and put them under a proprietary license.
I agree that rationally it is preferable than a fully closed source software.

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Hello, thank you for offering this explanation. I’ve been following Obsidian for a while and keep coming back to consider it against a few of my other favourite similar applications (Zim, Zettlr, and Trilium). Obsidian is really impressive and I like it’s roadmap. I’d like to support its continued development by paying for one of the options you provide but what stops me from following-through with that, every time, is the fact that it’s not free and open source software.

First point on safety seems a fair comment but it’s also true of closed, proprietary software. This isn’t an argument against FOSS.

Second point also seems fair but not an argument against FOSS because if you release your code as FOSS it doesn’t mean you’re required to take anyone’s potential improvements. But you do give yourselves the option of taking them if you want to. This also is true for the fourth point. You may not want to put the effort into managing a vibrant FOSS project but that’s your choice, it’s not an argument against making the code FOSS. Proprietary software doesn’t have that option at all.

Third point, true FOSS projects may not last forever, nor will proprietary, closed-source ones. This isn’t an argument against FOSS, it’s just a fact of anything not managed well. From what I see of the pricing options in your business model, having your code released under a FOSS licence would make no difference to how you make money. If your business is sustainable now (or heading in that direction), while you currently give your software away for free then there is no change.

However, a benefit to making it FOSS that you will never be able to get any other way is that you’re committing to your users that you respect them. You’re telling us that you respect the fact that we have certain freedoms about what we do with the software we use on our computers. Without that sort of commitment, even if I personally never use the code or see anyone else contribute improvements to it, I cannot in good conscience pay to support your organization.

I hope you will take my points as positive criticism. I truly believe you have a great applicaton and it seems like a good business model. It just strikes me that you haven’t made any actual arguments against licensing the software as FOSS but have some conceptions that are skewing a bit from what would actually be the case and thus preventing a lot of additional support (as some of the other comments here suggest).

Thank you for listening/reading and hopefully reconsidering.

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I love Obsidian and hope it could open source. Then I could contribute.
But just like @okay , I am not trust it 100%. So I use firejail to run it in a sandbox and to limit its network connection. For example:

$ firejail --net=none Obsidian.AppImage
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Thanks for the hint. I was looking for something like firejail.

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This would be really cool. It would help plugin developers see the full context for the APIs they want to make, and would help development to look more like Athens.

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Obsidian gets so much right! And, I really appreciate the team’s generally respectful approach to users. I would like to ask for more of an understanding of their thinking on a few points that they express prominently but which seem at odds with the fact that the software is not open source.

In the help page “How Obsidian stores data” it recognizes the benefit of open formats, saying:

We believe your data is always yours to own and control. Your notes are stored in markdown, which is an open format based on plain text files, and so should be readable in the future by any computer that can deal with text files. You can freely edit notes in other software, even while having them open in Obsidian.

This is very compelling; it’s one of the reasons I want to use markdown (and Obsidian). However, an open format for files is not sufficient for the future or compatibility. File content is often not totally independent of the application that it was produced with. Here’s a simplistic analogy: consider a film on a tv in your home… it’s not the same experience as that same film in a theatre. The application (theatre screen vs. small tv screen) changes it (e.g. the need for letterboxing).

In a note-taking/knowledge base application like Obsidian, content is created a little differently than in alternative applications. The features of this tool, its interface, and the inherent workflows all cause the way a person structures notes and folders to be somewhat different than in other tools.

Yes, I can open my Obsidian notes in Zettlr, Joplin, or Zim (with its markdown import) but to use them well, I need to adapt my personal processes to those interfaces, features, and the worklows of those distinct tools (sometimes equivalent features that we rely on for creating note content, don’t even exist in the other tools). That means, I’m going to have to change things about how I structure my notes for them to be the most effective in each tool.

I’m pretty sure that the Obsidian developers recognize this because it says the following on the homepage:

“for you”
Note-taking is incredibly personal. Tried every app, but there’s always something not quite right? You deserve better.

I agree that note-taking is incredibly personal and their sentence linking the personal aspect to the application itself, speaks to this.

Finally, the Obsidian team makes a great point about cloud services, instability of companies being bought, and data lock-in. As I mentioned and the Obsidian team seems to agree with, my way of taking notes is personally affected by the application I use. My notes, while not entirely locked-in (due to their text markdown file format), are at least partially locked-in due to the way I’ve adapted their content, folder structures, etc. to Obsidian’s features/workflows/etc. They get inreasingly locked-in if I adopt some of the great plugins developed for creating content in Obsidian. Obsidian’s website says:

“forever”
In our age when cloud services can shut down, get bought, or change privacy policy any day, the last thing you want is proprietary formats and data lock-in.

Definitely. A proprietary format holds no value to me. Yet the solution, as far as I can tell, to all of these issues is not just for the data/content to be open but for the application itself to be open source too.

Only if Obsidian were open source, would users, with all of the content we’ve created in the tool, truly not be locked in. And why? Because at least if something happened to prevent users from continuing to use the tool as we expect, it could be forked, and that fork could continue to allow people to access and use our content, in the way that we adapted our personal workflows and thinking for, with Obsidian. (And that’s irrelevant to Obsidian’s pricing model, which doesn’t appear to offer anything that would lose any of its value from the software being open source.)

My initial request for more understanding comes down to the fact that the things the Obsidian team is in favour of, do not appear to be possible so long as the software itself is not released as open source. I would like to understand how Obsidian can hold on to this seemingly contradictory position? Is there some good reason that I am overlooking?

Thank you for considering this..

*P.S. *
If my point about the tool impacting content or structures that I create with it seems ambiguous, here is one very basic (though not the only) example illustrating what I mean.

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Isn’t their code their intellectual property and value? Wouldn’t open sourcing just give up their code, like giving away the store?

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You may be interested in the thread Open sourcing of Obsidian and @Silver’s response there.

I generally disagree with the points that you’re making, though I appreciate your perspective and am not interested in having a lot of discussion about it; I mostly commented to link you to the first thread. :slight_smile: Briefly, though–

  • you’re right that Obsidian’s flavor of Markdown is tool specific, but the differences are minimal (YAML frontmatter, [[backlinks]] that you can replace with wiki-style links, and block references). Open sourcing the app wouldn’t make the format more open. Other tools would still have to integrate with its format.
  • in my opinion, you’re understating the value of pure Markdown files. You can’t edit Roam notes from other places. You can’t edit Notion pages from other places. Being able to see my Obsidian notes in Sublime or VS Code or in an email attachment is huge by itself.
  • open sourcing the software is pretty impractical for a small team of two developers (the thread goes into this more)
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I appreciate your thoughts. Your first two points, I think, are fair. They also reinforce what I was hoping to convey. Even with apparently minimal differences, those can have exponential impact as the quantity of notes grows. The nature of the note content we create using the tool is wed to the features and design of the tool itself.

The third point though, I have to say, there is a great deal of evidence that shows it is possible, even practical. Many (most?) open source projects have begun with a single developer, then grow and improve because of the community helping them.

The thread you pointed to as countering this problem is problematic because it presented arguments against open source but which do not hold up to scrutiny as problems with open source at all.

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@owlyph I merged the old thread here as it all relates to the request to open source Obsidian. I don’t plan on getting involved in this discussion, but I do want to point out a few things that you might want to consider.

As it was mentioned above this requires a lot more time (and experience) to make it work. I don’t see the point of open-sourcing if the devs don’t have the resources to accept PRs and manage issues. This could actually end up being counter-productive, with other apps profiting from the open-sourced code instead of helping make Obsidian sustainable. As for contributing as part of the community, there is the plugin API which already enables you to contribute and help others.

As @tusharc mentioned, I think you’re underselling the advantages of plain-text files and how powerful that is. Data-lock in is about your files. If Obsidian were to disappear, I would still be able to use them without major problems. I don’t think there is anything specific to Obsidian related to content or folder structures that couldn’t be fixed with a script later on, but it might be worth it to keep that in mind and make your notes software-agnostic if that is a concern of yours.

Plugins are also publicly available, so you can have backups of them in case you want to recreate their functionalities in other editors if Obsidian disappears. You are also welcome to contribute to them to make their formats more portable or compatible with other editors as well.

Given that you are already aware of these open-source applications and their limitations, I would really recommend focusing your contributions there. There are other open-source alternatives you can also consider: Foam, Athens research, dendron, (among many others that keep coming up). Adding the functionality you are missing to the (open-source) editor of your choice would make a great contribution to open-source software and provide a backup for your processes if Obsidian were to disappear.

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These are all interesting and I think, were good points to reflect on. Yet, they don’t resolve the contradiction inherent to Obsidian’s approach. If you look at things from the perspective of a user (which I suppose most people on this forum ought to do as it appears Obsidian as an organization, is two people at the moment) then you have a lot of motivation for the tools you use to be free and open source software (particularly in Obsidian’s phrasing, this “incredibly personal” case).

Why?

First, regardless of whether Obsidian ever accepts changes from anyone outside of their organization, you can be sure that the code of the application is available if indeed someday the company dies/gets bought by people with bad intentions/etc. and that means there is at a minimum, the potential for someone else to continue it in its original form. And you/us as users to feel some confidence that our work with this tool will not be inconveniently disrupted. Anyone migrating to Obsidian from another tool, probably has dealt with such pain.

Second, fundamentally, users retain the freedom to use our computers and applications as we determine (as opposed to having it controlled by a third-party)–that’s a basic and ethical courtesy to users. It communicates respect.

Having the code available, sure a competitor could fork it and offer their own product but that would only really matter if Obsidian were trying to make money from selling licence seats, which it isn’t… the benefits of paying for their model is mostly that you receive support and insider access… that has nothing to do with licence seats of software. Competitors offer similar products and services already, this is kind of a non-issue. In fact, depending on the type of open source licence used, “competition” can be turned into a useful thing.

I say this stuff, again, because I think Obsidian is great. I would like to adopt it. I would like to pay for their services. I cannot do that without an ethical licence that respects my user rights and efforts, which based on Obsidian’s own statements, it seems like they’d agree with. Why not take the stance to its logical and accurate conclusion and offer an open source application?

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These are your opinions, so let’s not just assume that every user is onboard with those.

As @Silver hinted in previous reply, longevity of software is more likely if some devs can put food on the table with it, not just by releasing the code and hoping that someone will continue doing the the work for free.
The devs aren’t as confided as you are about the viability of opensource for small consumer apps. They may be wrong but it’s within their right to make this call.

It’s courtesy sure, but all the windows users, mac users, ios users are not receiving it and yet they are fine with it. I wouldn’t go as far as call unethical someone who doesn’t want to make a project open source.

Obsidian is not free for commercial use. And don’t forget about the add-ons. Why would you wanna give someone else everything to start offering the same service?

There are pros/cons in open source and there are pros and cons in closed source.
You are free to do what you want and support whichever product you see fit. But ultimately, you gotta accept that other people may see it differently.

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A lot of being an open-source adopter is the ability to choose open-source software, of which there are a lot of alternatives, as you also mentioned. If open-sourcing is the key to creating a future-proof process, I’m sure contributing to the open-source alternatives is the way to go. You have the choice as a user to not use Obsidian as your primary text editor if open-source is that important to you. As I said before, you should be mindful of making your notes software-agnostic and taking precautions with the software you use.

As a user and a developer, I struggle to understand how open-sourcing the code, given the amount of competition out there, would make Obsidian sustainable. It might make an old version accessible to you, which I would still argue about since you can have the AppImage file of the latest version backed up somewhere, but that would not guarantee that the developers can continue working on this app given that all the competition has access to all their features.

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Thank you for all the thoughtful responses on this matter. I agree that from the perspective of a user, what you’re saying makes sense.

I would like to point out that despite our best attempts to align our interest with our users like you, we fundamentally still operate from with the perspective of a business framework. I think this is where there’s a fundamental misunderstanding between your arguments and the rest of the discussions here.

We are proud to be generous in our offerings. We give away the rights to use the app completely for free for personal use. We don’t show ads. We don’t track any user data behind your backs. We don’t sell your data to shady companies for dollars. We don’t lock in your data into our format or platform. In fact, we go to great lengths to ensure our data format is compatible with other tools when possible.

This is unfair. This is morally guilt-tripping us into surrendering more than we’d like.

We as a business have to evaluate such decisions not only from our user’s perspective, but also from a business perspective. We make decisions that allows our long-term survival as a business. We do our best to reduce unnecessary business risks.

To recap,

  • As a user, it would be great if the app can continue to work if we go out of business.
  • As a business, we don’t want to go out of business.
  • As a user, it would be great if there’s a lot of “competition”.
  • As a business, it’s really stressful if competitors can take your work, copy it and sell it as their own. Licenses don’t prevent copying, and lawsuits are expensive and time consuming.

I think we are both right, but for us as a business it just makes more sense to stay close sourced. This is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

If open-source is a must for you, then you are very well within your rights to choose an open-sourced alternative. Joplin, Zettlr, Foam, Dendron, Logseq are all great open sourced alternatives.

If you are unsatisfied with the alternatives, and believes that Obsidian is truly excellent, then I would invite you to consider that maybe, just maybe, some parts of this success can be attributed to the close sourced magic sauce.

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I’d like to add my observation that for consumer apps, open-sourced applications are most often sub-par compared to close-sourced ones.

The most popular, well designed, well tested, and well supported consumer applications are almost always close sourced:

  • Microsoft Office and Google Docs are universally used, and stuff like Notion is becoming increasingly popular, as opposed to LibreOffice.
  • Outlook and Google Calendar. I haven’t heard of any popular open sourced alternatives.
  • Adobe Photoshop, the gold standard of photo editing, as opposed to something like GIMP.
  • Sketch and Figma. I haven’t heard of any popular open sourced alternatives.
  • Windows and macOS, both having huge market share for consumer desktops, as opposed to Linux.
  • Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box, takes up pretty much most of the market. There are great open sourced alternatives but none of them are popular, and most you have to setup your own hosting.

The rare good open-sourced consumer apps usually have huge corporate backing, and are often ad-supported or makes the company a lot of money in other ways. I’m talking about things like Google Chrome/Android (Google makes billions of ad money form those indirectly), and Facebook’s family of products (also ads).

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It’s easy to make a lot of the same arguments for the other side as well.
E.g. I don’t know how Obsidian exactly is developed but I reckon it’s quite easy for a competitor to decompile and therefore to steal the code. So being closed source doesn’t really help you here.
However you can make the same argument for the people like me who want the app to be open source. Just decompile it and have a look (this propably isn’t fully legal).

And your last post, well quality can mean many things not just a pretty UI.

Anyway, in the end I think it’s best that you close this thread and we agree that Obsidan have made up their mind about this matter.

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I apologize, apparently I did a poor job explaining what I had in mind with my “ethical” comment–it seems to be understood differently than I intended, I didn’t want to guilt-trip anyone, sorry it came across that way.

I don’t want you to go out of business either. Your application and services are excellent so I’d love to see Obsidian succeed for the long term and be able to rely on it myself for the long term. That’s why I want to pay you for them!

To consider the examples you offered, I’m not so sure they accomplish the task of showing a proprietary advantage to users or companies.

Office and Google Docs… I’d question that Notion. :slight_smile: For something comparable there is collaboraoffice.com (based on LibreOffice) or its online integration with nextcloud.com (and there are commercial services apparently succeeding around these)

Outlook and Google Calendar, there’s Evolution and a variety of other good clients, including web-based ones that are as good/useful, sometimes more elegant too. NextCloud again is an example incorporating web-based calendaring in its suite.

Photoshop, like many old proprietary applications, is truly in a dominant position with a huge privilege in the market that makes it difficult for others, equally including proprietary applications to gain a footing. Gimp nonetheless is a pretty impressive testament to open source rising to the occasion even if it still is not 100% on par. Don’t discount other impressive graphics-oriented applications that are dominant in their space like Blender, which is open source.

Sketch and Figma, I’m not familiar with so can’t address those.

Windows and MacOS… MacOS you may recall only exists because it was built on the basis of copying the open source BSD operating system and incorporates a huge amount of open source software. These companies also have a headstart and practice unfair competitive tricks. Microsoft famously was sued about that. Yet, Microsoft’s trend is increasingly to open source applications and incorporate more open source software into its products.

Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box… I don’t know about all of those but Google is a heavy open source user and contributor. The company is built on Linux servers. Again NextCloud comes to mind where you can pay for a hosted service from a provider or do it yourself (though there are others).

The Obsidian application itself exists due to the open source Electron and open formats like markdown, etc. Even its web-based services rely on open source technologies and standards. There would be no Web without those.

Being a well-supported consumer application is not equivalent to being a closed-source application. Companies can and do provide well-supported consumer applications that are open source–I’m pretty sure your own services make a good case for how that could be possible. Open source does not mean non-commercial.

Fundamentally, if you operate from the perspective of a business framework, you’d want to provide what paying customers seek. As you mentioned, you’re giving the software away for free. So you want to make money by attracting more users to pay for your services. I will absolutely pay once my right to use my computer and applications is safe and respected within my control. That right cannot hurt any user, whether they care about open source or are oblivious to it. Yet you gain, as a business, by serving an increased user population that could pay for your services. Fundamentally, your commercial interests and model would align better with increasing users by open sourcing your application.

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E.g. I don’t know how Obsidian exactly is developed but I reckon it’s quite easy for a competitor to decompile and therefore to steal the code. So being closed source doesn’t really help you here.

This does stop ethical competitors. In addition to being wrong, decompiling and copying closed-source code is a significant step that creates contract and copyright liability. Sensible, ethical competitors won’t do that.

But if you were to slap an MIT license on Obsidian, then guess what? Those ethical competitors would absolutely take that code, because you would have allowed them to.

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There’s a huge difference between ‘non-commercial’ and ‘a viable project that can survive’.

Let’s take Zettlr for example. That open source software reached 100,000 downloads earlier this year (source). That’s pretty good!

Yet there are only 4 people who contributed more than 10 commits in the two years that this project is old (source).

So the project is not a success in terms of a lot of contributions and help from external people. Perhaps this project is a success financially?

Well, Zettlr only has 109 patrons (source), which against the average tier of €5.17 per month is €563.53 per month (before taxes and costs). In some countries that might be a full-time income, but Zettlr’s main developer lives in Germany, which is an expensive country.

So from a community contributions and financial perspective, Zettlr’s open source model is a failure. The only way the application is still in development, is that its creator works on this project out of love, while sacrificing his free time and other activities.

Does that sound sustainable to you?

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