GPL : Matt Mullenweg and Automattic vs. Wix

The General Public License (GPL) has been the source of many discussions since it was created in 1989 (with a few versions in following years) and applied to numerous Open Source Software projects.

Currently, there is one more such discussion going on.  It was kicked off by Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress:

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to try new things — phones, gadgets, apps. Last week I downloaded the new Wix (closed, proprietary, non-open-sourced, non-GPL) mobile app. I’m always interested to see how others tackle the challenge of building and editing websites from a mobile device.

I started playing around with the editor, and felt… déjà vu. It was familiar. Like I had used it before.

Turns out I had. Because it’s WordPress.

He proceeds with the open letter to Wix:

Dear Wix,

This explicitly contravenes the GPL, which requires attribution and a corresponding GPL license on whatever you release publicly built on top of GPL code. The GPL is what has allowed WordPress to flourish, and that let us create this code. Your app’s editor is built with stolen code, so your whole app is now in violation of the license.

What does Matt want Wix to do?  Very simple:

Release your app under the GPL, and put the source code for your app up on GitHub so that we can all build on it, improve it, and learn from it.

Did Wix respond?  Yes, they did.  First, one of their lead engineers, Tal Kol, wrote this blog post.  I think it’s quite sensible and boils down to a misunderstanding.  Or so I read it:

I apologize if I appeared to take credit for somebody else’s work. This was definitely not my intention. I think you guys are doing a great job.

Second one though is a bit less so, written by Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami.  While trying to appear friendly and casual, it does dodge the whole issue of the GPL violation, misrepresents the facts on the branding, and ends with an awkward invitation for a coffee.  WP Garage has a good summary of why this response is weak.

Here are a few more resources with commentary that help to understand the issue:

Personally, I am a big fan of GPL, Automattic, WordPress and Matt Mullenweg, who I had the opportunity to meet and talk to back a few years ago.  But as a CTO of a startup (and not for the first time), I have to admit that Open Source Software is difficult when it comes to business.  It requires a huge effort to make a company understand what Open Source Software is, what are the intricacies of the major licenses, and what are the consequences of using Open Source Software for different kinds of projects (internal tools, client projects, company products and services, etc).

Here are the important points that I want to highlight in regards to this conversion:

  • If you are using Open Source Software, make sure you understand the licensing and the culture behind it.
  • If you made a mistake, admit to it and figure out a way to resolve it.  Dodging or finger-pointing is not a resolve.
  • Legal action is not the only option.  Often, it is not even the most preferable.
  • Be nice to people. :)

I’d like to finish with this tweet, which I think highlights the most important point.

P.S.: Some people say that GPL has not been enforced in courts.  This page lists a few cases in several countries, which provide examples of the contrary.

The Intrinsic Value of Blogging

The Intrinsic Value of Blogging

Matt Mullenweg blogs on something I’ve been thinking about for a while too.  My thoughts aren’t distilled yet, but this does resonate with me plenty.  I think I have been writing either for the first or second person lately, not for both at the same time.

[…] write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.

Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!).

Matt Mullenweg – State of the Word 2012

If you are involved with any kind of software development, this video is a must see.  Matt Mullenweg of Automattic fame speaks about the state of WordPress – community, releases, user interfaces, problems and solutions, etc.  One of the coolest things about Matt is his attitude towards the end users.  He seems to appreciate that they are just regular people, with their own needs and problems, and that they all don’t have to be geeks to use a piece of software.  Even in this video, he repeatedly points out that it’s not the user’s fault that something is difficult to use, but the developer’s.  More so, the developer is the one who can actually fix the problem.  That’s the kind of attitude that I am trying to teach myself in the last few years.  I’ve made progress, but, sadly, I am still way too far.

One more thing

Last year Matt Mullenweg wrote this post and I somehow missed it.

There is a dark time in WordPress development history, a lost year. Version 2.0 was released on December 31st, 2005, and version 2.1 came out on January 22nd, 2007. Now just from the dates, you might imagine that perhaps we had some sort of rift in the open source community, that all the volunteers left or that perhaps WordPress just slowed down. In fact it was just the opposite, 2006 was a breakthrough year for WP in many ways: WP was downloaded 1.5 million times that year, and we were starting to get some high-profile blogs switching over. The growing prominence had attracted scores of new developers to the project and we were committing new functionality and fixes faster than we ever had before.

What killed us was “one more thing.” We could have easily done three major releases that year if we had drawn a line in the sand, said “finished,” and shipped the darn thing. The problem is that the longer it’s been since your last release the more pressure and anticipation there is, so you’re more likely to try to slip in just one more thing or a fix that will make a feature really shine. For some projects, this literally goes on forever.