Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

I Accuse – GPL Zealots are Killing Open Source

So, this post is not about accessibility, but something that I must discuss. GPL zealots are making their presence felt in ways that just boggle the mind. Recently both WordPress and Drupal have been removing themes from their repository for allegedly not respecting the GPL license. Not that long ago there was a huge discussion on the Joomla! forums about GPL and what 3PD could, or could not, do.

The stance taken by these people is just so fanatical and narrow minded that it is bound to be harmful to the FOSS world.

I must admit, I’m not an attorney (nor do I play one on TV). I am also not a specialist in licensing issues, but I think I have a decent understanding of what’s at play.

WordPress removed over 200 themes, under the pretext that they were carrying links back to their author’s site, and the author’s site either was offering commercial material, or even simply had links to affiliate programs!

So these guys are making a living by programming. They released a free GPL theme to the world, but the GPL theme could not be used with WordPress because it came from a commercial outfit. This is incredible!

It means that nobody trying to make a living from programming can release anything to the world as GPL. Commercial developers can benefit from releasing GPL products. So what if it’s a way to attract people to their site to view pay-for products and services? The GPL license applies to a specific product, not to the whole range of products offered. How ridiculous is it to extend it that way? But then, GPL products will also benefit from extensions and add-ons developped under the GPL by commercial developers.

Geeesh, how long is it going to be before businesses using WordPress to run their websites are going to be told that they can’t do that because they are generating revenue from WordPress, merely because WP is used as the engine for the website where services or products are sold?

So, professional coders have no incentive at all to develop for the FOSS world.

But there is still demand for FOSS products. Someone’s going to develop them. This means that novice programmers, students, young kids and total hobbyists are going to be the ones working on FOSS. While many of these guys can be good, it is not a stretch of the imagination to envision that the overall quality of FOSS code is going to come crashing down. And with lower quality of code, less people are going to be interested in using it.

And I’m tired of arguing with the fanatics. There is no fun at all anymore in being involved in FOSS projects when self-appointed "keepers of the faith" could descend on me, directly or not, and yank the carpet from under my wheels.

Yes, the narrow-minded GPL zealots out there are going to KILL FOSS.

12 thoughts on “I Accuse – GPL Zealots are Killing Open Source

  1. I can’t share your interpretation of this, Nic.

    I work alondside a number of open source zealots, and proprietory software zealots, and I often get tired of both camps. But on this issue, I think WordPress and Drupal are doing generally the right thing. Contrary to how it may seem, I think their actions are protecting the interests of people who make a living from FOSS. Here’s why I think this.

    I understand that the themes that are at issue are those where the author has limited the freedom of people who use them. For example, they might have stated that their credit can’t be removed from the theme. Or they might have stated that the theme can’t be altered in some other way. As a developer who may use that person’s theme, this means I cannot easily use their work in mine. They are giving me the theme, but only by setting limits as to what I can do with it. And I can’t pass on the work I create with theirs under a completely free license, which is normally one of my Uniques Selling Points as a freelance developer: complete freedom for my clients. These theme creators are, to some extent, moving away from the FOSS business model and back to the proprietory one.

    There are lots of good and viable ways to make money from software development under the FOSS model, but none of them focus on limiting people’s freedoms with regard to the software itself. I am hoping to release Drupal themes myself in the coming year. I am motivated to do this, not because I’m getting direct money or marketing. Rather, I’m boosting the Drupal CMS for which I depend on my income. And I’m also boosting my standing within the Drupal community as a quality theme developer (I hope, if I’m any good!). Sooner or later, I hope my status within the Drupal community will result in some work coming my way for my expertise. But even if not, it is precisely the Drupal system, and its modules, released under the GPL, that gives me such massive benefits over even quite large agencies with their own proprietory CMSs. The thing that makes a GPL system so useful for me, is the fact that I am at liberty to remove all credits, change it in any way, and sell it for as much as I like–on the sole condition that I do not restrict anyone else’s permission to do the same.

    I don’t believe that WordPress or Drupal will ever prevent you from using their software in a profit making way. To do so, they would have to stop using the GPL and find some other licence–perhaps a non-comercial creative commons one.

    Does this make any sense? Please come back at me if you disagree.

  2. The WordPress saga is about the “spirit of the GPL” and is simply confusing the license with some kind of indefinable “community spirit” that confuses the 4 freedoms with “free” as in zero dollars. Drupal removed themes from their repository recently too, but in doing so they made their rationale clear. As a result, their actions did not result in a never-ending GPL argument. Mambo’s position statement on derivative works also did not lead to arguments over how the GPL should be interpreted.

    There is an excellent post here on the WordPress issue: http://pressedwords.com/wordpress-themes-and-vagueness/ dealing with this.

    The lesson to be learned is simple – FOSS projects have to be transparent and must communicate.

  3. Just followed the links provided by Lynne, and I now understand the context. I agree with Lynne though, about the root of the problem being communication. And also, as people have commented elsewhere, about mixing up a clear-cut license with subjective judgements about “the spirit” of that license.

  4. Mark has the right idea.

    (Don’t forget to capitalize the P in WordPress. ;))

    “WordPress removed over 200 themes, under the pretext that they were carrying links back to their author’s site, and the author’s site either was offering commercial material, or even simply had links to affiliate programs!”

    Actually we removed only 5-6 themes for that, the other 250ish we removed were because they were search engine spamming or claiming to be something other than GPL, which is prohibited from the directory. The vast majority we removed were very low quality and had few downloads.

    “They released a free GPL theme to the world, but the GPL theme could not be used with WordPress”

    You can use any code you like with WordPress, and for any purpose you like. All that we’re discussing is things we’re promoting and hosting on WordPress.org, which is the project homepage.

    “While many of these guys can be good, it is not a stretch of the imagination to envision that the overall quality of FOSS code is going to come crashing down.”

    The folks I work with on WP are some of the best developers around, which I think is attested by some of the sites that use WordPress:

    http://wordpress.org/showcase/

    WP is also behind WordPress.com, one of the top 30 websites in the world.

  5. Well, a good point and yes – commercial interests, especially from smaller companies like ours, are being damaged by GPL zealotry.

    Let’s look at what the zealots believe, and what’s true:

    >> I understand that the themes that are at issue are those where the author has limited the freedom of people who use them. For example, they might have stated that their credit can’t be removed from the theme. Or they might have stated that the theme can’t be altered in some other way.

    Nope – our GPL themes are pure and simple 100% GPL. No strings attached, no added conditions, just try downloading our GPL themes and you’ll see the GPL license in there along with a simple and clear readme that never tells anyone to not remove links. It’s nice for people to leave them there though – these themes cost us real money to develop and a bit of credit is nice. We’re not a charity, after. Neither’s Automattic, funnily enough.

    But that’s not good enough. Instead WordPress.org and co.

    Thing is, the GPL was developed a long time ago. Long before the idea of hosted applications. It was designed to avoid lock-in and price gouging. It was also designed, largely, to protect GNU OS from being made proprietary and mostly talked about compiled code.

    Big surprise for you – but the GPL is deeply flawed in today’s world. All the Facebook code could be GPL but I still can’t easily move my data from Facebook to somewhere else. All that content I generated gets locked to them. Same applies to WordPress.com – there’s an export tool, but a lot of features are lost and WordPress.com do not openly distribute some of the themes – though they do if you know where to look.

    The funny thing is, if you do very fine, reliable work, there’s not much money in support. Our themes are ultra-reliable, and trivial to customise – so guess what, it makes us less work. In fact, the way the GPL zealots are working actively encourages flakiness or feature loss in order to generate revenue as the projects mature.

    I’m pretty hacked off with it all and am actively looking at other licenses and other platforms. Automattic is treating developers and designers with contempt and I for one am not happy about it.

  6. @Dave C
    I can understand that you’re frustrated with Matt and Automattic, but that’s not the GPL’s fault. It’s only a licence and, despite your misgivings, seems to be very effective around the world.

    You have a dispute with Matt Mulenweg and his management of his work. You’re blaming the GPL for this. You are incorrect to do so.

    The GPL is keeping up just fine. It’s not designed to mediate between individuals having disputes. It’s designed to define how software may be distributed.

    Matt Mulenweg has a particular interpretation (which I don’t agree with) about derivative works, and you appear to have issue with that. Again, that’s not the GPL’s fault – it’s a breakdown between you and Mulenweg about what’s acceptable.

    Stop shooting the messanger and concentrate your efforts on why you and Automattic are not communicating. Or, pack up your tent and move to another platform, as you say. It’s your choice.

  7. After following this saga for the past week, I have concluded that zealots per se are not a problem but uninformed (or misinformed) zealots certainly are!

    Matt went on record today with a 2-hour interview (http://weblogtoolscollection.com/archives/2008/12/19/2hr-interview-with-matt-mullenweg/)

    Like many others in the FOSS world, Matt appears to confuse open source with the FSF position. In the interview he repeatedly uses, “open source” when he means “free software”. It appears that his interpretation of free software also means free as in price if the software is licensed under the GPL. In his interview he talks about taking commercial themes and redistributing them at no cost, without regard for the license. He even stated that, “Google around you can find any of these themes for free”, thereby reinforcing the misguided view that anyone can take any theme designed for WordPress and release it.

    This confusion over the meaning of “open source” and the FSF position is something the Free Software Foundation has itself been trying to clear up for years.

    Matt also appears confused over other terminology, such as “commercial” and “proprietary” and ignores the fact that a commercial theme may be licensed under GPL. He is certainly not alone in that.

    I personally don’t think the interview will do anything to stop the GPL arguments that have been consuming the WordPress community for most of 2008. What it does do, however, is make it clear that anyone who wishes to give back to the WordPress community by developing a GPL theme must license their theme data (XHTML, CSS, JavaScript and images) under the same General Public License and must not add an author link to a site that contains, supports or promotes commercial themes. WordPress.org is perfectly within its rights to stipulate this on their rules for inclusion in the theme directory.

    Sadly, this debacle just adds to the vast amount of FUD surrounding the GPL and will hang around on the Net to confuse even more users of FOSS applications.

  8. I haven’t found any evidence that the Drupal project has done what you have implied. Can you please provide evidence or remove the links and tags that imply Drupal is involved in this? Thanks.

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