Tag Archives: gpl

Not Lonely at All

Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software wrote a blog post called Getting Pretty Lonely and and says, among other things, “Whenever I am reminded that WordPress is GPL, my passion for it takes a bit of a dive. I’m more comfortable with the true freedom of liberally-licensed products.” More importantly, he says that “GPL stifles participation,” and implies the same for adoption. The article was linked by John Gruber at Daring Fireball saying, “Smart essay from Daniel Jalkut on how the GPL discourages participation from many (if not most) developers.”

For what it’s worth, from my practical experience in the WordPress world:

  1. I’ve never encountered a serious client who chose not to use WordPress because it was GPL-licensed, and I think it’s hard to argue that WordPress’s license has had a dampening effect on its adoption, given its success over competitors with widely varying licenses.
  2. I think we have an incredibly strong third-party extension, plugin, and theme community that has flourished, not in spite of the GPL license, but because of it.
  3. I’ve seen the absence of GPL in practice; there have been times in the WordPress world when parts of the community have “gone dark” and claimed their code was under more restrictive licenses, like used to be common with themes. Every time this cycle starts it basically kills innovation in that part of the WordPress world until people start opening up their code again or until a GPL equivalent is available. I’ve seen this firsthand several times now.

WordPress first used the GPL because it was built on an existing GPL project (b2). Later I began to really understand the philosophical underpinnings of the GPL and understood it to be the most moral of the open source licenses. Now, in addition to that, my experience over the past 6 years has made me believe it to be the best license for practical purposes as well.

GPL was a license written for a different time and on the web it’s possible to find a thousand loopholes and ways around it (see: software as a service) but if you keep in mind the core freedoms and principles — share and share alike — they provide excellent guidelines for building a rich community and ecosystem: the two things that ultimately have far more to do with product success than the license. (Competitors to WP have switched to the GPL from proprietary licenses with basically no effect. License does not equal community, it’s a lot harder than that.)

Ultimately Daniel’s article falls apart on two levels, the first illustrated in a comment I left on the post:

Your biggest fallacy is “the liberal-license communities are attractive to developers from all 3 camps.”

I’m a GPL-friendly developer that is hesitant to be involved with a non-GPL project the same way your “passion for it takes a bit of a dive” when coming into contact with the GPL.

You could also make a fairly good argument that the majority of Open Source developers are GPL-friendly simply because the vast majority of Open Source projects are licensed under the GPL.

The common-knowledge number seems to be about 70% of open source projects are under the GPL and (more importantly) many of the most crucial and successful ones are. If Gruber’s “many (if not most) developers” avoid the GPL, maybe those folks aren’t that important. (In reality I think the majority of developers aren’t strongly influenced by licenses as long as they’re open source, something Daniel seems to agree with, saying “the vast majority of developers will participate in any project that is advantageous to them.”)

But more importantly, Mr Jalkut conflates what he perceives as his freedom as a developer with freedom from a user’s point of view. The things the GPL “takes away” from him, like being able to license his derivatives under a more restrictive license, are in fact protecting the freedoms of the users of his code. That’s who the GPL was written for. From the Free Software Definition:

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software [...]

It’s user freedom that the GPL was created to protect, just like the Bill of Rights was created to protect the people, not the President. The GPL introduces checks and balances into an incredibly imbalanced power dynamic, that between a developer and his/her product’s users. The only thing the GPL says you can’t do is take away the rights of your users in your work or something derived from a GPL project, that the user rights are unalienable. You are free to do pretty much whatever you want as long as it does not infringe on the freedoms of others. (Sound familiar?)

That’s what software freedom means to me, and it’s something I believe in strongly enough to fight for and defend even when it’s not the easy or popular thing to do. (Especially this weekend as we celebrate the original “fork” of the US from England.)

See also: Alex King — Breaking News WordPress is GPL.

Price of Freedom

I got asked an interesting question today:

The only thing why (at least) I encode the footer is to prevent people from removing my designer link. I usually spend around 6 hours designing the graphics and coding the theme and some people simply take my link off and some of them even dare to write that the theme was designed and coded by them! How would you feel if someone took your WordPress script (since it’s free) and said they made it? Wouldn’t you like to bite their head off?

The response became too long for a comment, so here it is:

Kate, thousands of people every day remove the WordPress link, or my link, or search and replace the WP logo with their own and redistribute it, use it to spam, distribute hate speech, or any number of awful things you can imagine. So why have hundreds of people spent thousands of hours working on it?

Though the freedom intrinsic in the GPL that has allowed people to abuse WordPress it has allowed even more people to do amazing things and over time the good far, far outweighs the bad. Most importantly I feel like WordPress would have never gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been open from the beginning. (In fact there were several more functional blogging programs started around the same time that have since withered away.)

Ultimately I know our software isn’t going to change anyone’s spots. Good people will do good things with it, and bad people will do bad things with it — regardless of any protections I put in place. Windows Vista, a multi-billion dollar enterprise, was cracked within days. Does any piddling encoding I can do in PHP really matter? If protection like that isn’t broken it’s a statement of popularity, not security. I suppose could harass the bad guys, shut down their host, send them scary letters, but it’s just going to stress me out and like cockroaches they’ll pop up someplace else. I also know that most projects, software, and ideas die from obscurity, not piracy.

If you accept that bad people are going to be bad then the real question becomes how do you maximize the effect of the good instead of treating them just like the bad. (No one likes to be treated like a criminal.) In my brief experience here’s three things that work:

  1. Give people the tools they need to succeed. This can be interpreted on a lot of levels, but personally I’ve found at the most base the freedoms provided by the GPL and other open source licenses are incredibly empowering.
  2. Celebrate the successes. Talk, connect, promote, and embrace the people who are creating things on top of your creation. (The best revenge against someone doing something bad is helping create something awesome.)
  3. Provide a way for people to choose to help you, and try to remove as much friction from that process as possible. Now that you’ve ignored the bad people and delighted the good, by their very nature they’ll want to give something back.

The success stories around this model are numerous and growing every day. People can and do rip-off the entire Wikipedia, but it’s still become one of the top ten sites on the internet and a marvel of what can happen when you let go. (Not to mention it is run entirely on open source software.) WordPress itself was built on top of a pre-existing GPL product called b2/cafelog. Anyone can run the software behind our hosted service WordPress.com and create competitive sites, and many have, but it hasn’t hurt us one bit. Linux, GNU, and the thousands of related desktop projects haven’t taken a bit longer than folks had hoped, but the impact they’re having, especially on emerging economies, is dramatic. The list goes on and on. It’s not hard to join the movement, but first you have to figure out who you’re fighting, who you’re trying to help, and if the price of freedom is something you’re willing to embrace.