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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
85 thoughts on “Not Lonely at All”
Thanks, nice reply! I enjoyed your “The Way I Work” article on a plane trip recently.
As you point out, the target of the freedom in “free software” is often misunderstood to protect the freedom of people who want to distribute modified versions of it however they wish, rather than the freedom embedded in the software for its users. I think one way to illustrate it might be that the GPL license’s utopia is “societal freedom” — the society will have more free software, and so its people will be more free — while the BSD license’s utopia is “individual freedom” where an individual developer’s freedom is maximized.
(There are plenty of other examples of “societal freedom” laws: I would be more individually free if I could have my dog relieve himself on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, but society wouldn’t, so I don’t think we should optimize for that. ;-))
Matt, I’m in agreement with most of what you’re saying, but saying “I’ve never encountered a serious client who chose not to use WordPress because it was GPL-licensed” is a little thin. It’s like saying you believe tomatoes are poisonous because you’ve never seen anybody eat one.
The people who won’t choose GPL aren’t going to come up and explain why to you. It’s up to those of us who license software under GPL to continue justifying why it’s OK for businesses to use on a practical level. Arguing that “all the cool kids are doing it” won’t cut it for that fraction of corporate users who still rule out GPL software on the grounds of fear/uncertainty/doubt.
I have no doubt such people are out there, in fact there are any number of biases and prejudices I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid in my short business career. Corporate natural selection will take care of the rest.
I really enjoy these long posts more than the snippets. Any chance you can serve up a mobile theme when necessary? This took forever to load over 3G, and while I love the 2000px tall header graphic, it’s really useless when all I want is the content. Thanks Ma.tt
Yes let me look into one of the plugins.
I use WordPress Mobile from Crowd Favorite. http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wordpress-mobile-edition/
Outstanding when you just want content.
I personally prefer creating a handheld stylesheet for your specific theme. It works better than most of the plugins, and is IMO a lot easier to do. I described how I created one for my theme here:
Mobify is a nice service for selecting and styling content for mobiles. It provides previews for different mobile devices and also has a link to the main site, if people want to leave the mobile view.
Agreed, when I first followed the link to this page I didn’t realise there was actually a blog underneath that enormous graphic!
I write open source software and mostly do so under a so-called business friendly licence like BSD. This is because I want my software to reach a wide audience, even if it is through a commercial package. GPL restricts the number of channels to the end user.
However, I think it’s a completely different calculation if you are writing components or libraries versus a complete system like WordPress.
how so? The only reason for a restriction I can think of is if a business has a false sense of security as in “we can choose to hide our code, so we’re more secure”, which is total BS.
Okay, for those of us not in this exact circle of work (I’m in media and run a few wp blogs) having a basic definition of GPL at the beginning would be REALLY nice.
Good point, the best bet is to follow the free software link I quote.
The GPL is really a religion that says “this software and all its derivatives must be open source”, and the ‘derivatives’ is the part with which I disagree. It says it is protecting user’s rights. How does it protect a user of software A to force all DERIVATIVES-of-A to also be open source?
In contrast, deriving closed-source software from an MIT-licensed project in no way restricts the freedoms of users of that MIT-licensed project. It also allows freedoms to the developers of a derivative to do with it what it wants.
No more than the first amendment is a religion that says “these people must have freedom of speech.” Yes, this is a restriction on someone trying to take freedom of speech away, but it’s protecting more fundamental rights. That’s the point I was trying to make in the 800 words above. If the “do with it what it wants” includes taking freedom and rights away from people who formerly had it (users of the software) then it’s not really about freedom, it’s more a way to say “I don’t care what happens with this code, just don’t sue me” which are the cases where I use MIT-style licenses.
But someone deriving closed-source software from open-source does NOTHING to the rights of the users of the open source software. It absolutely does not take rights away from people who had it before. It restricts rights of the users of the derived piece of software only.
I think you answered your own question. ‘It restricts rights of the users of the derived piece of software”. That’s exactly what the GPL is intended to prevent: To maximize rights.
Not true. I thought I had already made it clear that I don’t agree with the license going viral and attaching itself to derived pieces of software. And that’s why I call the GPL a religion. It’s a belief system that is unnecessarily imposing itself. A belief system that says all software development must be open source.
If you want to derive works from a GPL piece of software and make your derivates GPL, you are free to do so. Otherwise, you are not free to do so.
“A belief system that says all software development must be open source.” — not true, you can always start software from scratch or base it on things that are under a different license.
Why would a developer release software as free if he or she didn’t care about propagating that belief system? Are there really GPLers out there who want to release free software but aren’t concerned about nonfree software? The license is merely a practical tool using copyright law to break down the notion of “intellectual property” as it applies to software. The GPL exists solely to support the belief that software should be free.
As mentioned in the comments on Daniel Jalkut’s post, Linus Torvalds does not believe that “software should be free”, but he uses and likes the GPL.
But if a developer decides to withhold his development skills from a GPL project because of the restrictions the license places on him or his company, the user loses too.
The GPL, for all its benefits, is a restrictive license. It restricts developers and can discourage participation, which is bad for users.
The problem is, when developers choose not to participate in a project because of the GPL, it does untraceable damage. It’s easy to say that WordPress has done just fine without those who chose not to participate, but we’ll never really know how much better it could have been if they had.
So, having a developer-restrictive license can hurt users too, potentially. The GPL isn’t universally altruistic to users. Of course users want developers to contribute code back to the project. It means they get more free stuff. We like free stuff. But oftentimes, we don’t recognize the hidden costs of free.
Thankfully, WordPress does have VC funded corporate interests, which help its development in much the same way Apple has contributed to liberally licensed projects. WordPress is a happy exception, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
Automattic has been profitable almost from day one, its success and investment in GPL has nothing to do with its VC investment which has been used mostly for proactive infrastructure for WordPress.com and acquisitions, in fact giving away core IP is contrary to what most VCs would want for companies they invest in.
Ahh, my mistake. I’m still very glad that WordPress has corporate backing that helps greatly in the development (the 2.7 redesign comes to mind, which would have been nearly impossible without Automattic).
Thanks for clearing that up!
Well-reasoned and smart – thanks.
The GPL fights for the users, just like Tron!
I’m really encouraged to see WordPress acknowledging the work of paid theme developers by showcasing those who release themes as 100% GPL — well done!
In regards to the ‘rights of your users’, I think that this is where the problem lies for some; it’s a fuzzy area, but it seems that user rights often outweigh the rights of the developer when it comes to GPL and WordPress.
As I understand it, there’s little to prevent users who’d paid for a fully GPL’ed WordPress theme from reselling that theme or distributing it via bittorrent; they would be completely within their ‘rights’ in this sense.
With WordPress itself this isn’t a problem because it’s free (who’d buy a paid version?), but with paid add-ons whose sourcecode is the product, it gets tricky fast.
Someone could start a site called ‘wpbargains.com’, purchase all the GPL’ed themes legitimately, and sell them for $5 each, for example, undercutting all premium developers.
For that reason, it seems that the GPL license isn’t completely compatible with a commercial WordPress endeavour; not for those whose business is in selling the source and not just the service, anyway. Because of this, I can completely understand why developers are reluctant to fully embrace GPL over more liberal alternatives like MIT/Apache.
Yes, it would seem on first blush that things that rely on economics of scarcity are at risk when GPL-licensed. However the reality has shown to be different. The experience and service around GPL code is not fungible, and even though the exact scenario you describe (people reselling premium themes cheaper) has happened, it hasn’t impacted commercial GPL theme authors’ business anymore than piracy has.
I had a similar experience in the early days of WordPress.com where there was a competing site using MU, the code we were investing heavily in, to create their own blog hosting service that actually had more users than we did. But they couldn’t replicate the development, expertise, service, and trust that we were able to build with the community and eventually faded away, in fact many of their users switching to WordPress.com. It was a funny situation where a “knock-off” actually drove more usage of the “original.” Ultimately we competed on things that really mattered to users, not artificial scarcity of the underlying code.
I’ll echo Matt’s statements here regarding knock off themes and his experience with “competitors” not being able to replicate the atmosphere which WP.com was providing.
I’m one of the (unfortunate) developers who has someone reselling my themes. And as Matt stated, the people who have purchased the package from the other site (mainly on the misconception they were associated with me and StudioPress) were glad to make up the difference in cost to ensure that they would be included in our community.
As Matt has indicated a number of times, it’s the community that surrounds StudioPress which will, in my eyes, be the force that these knock off sites will come nowhere close to replicating and in the end, our business model will prevail.
You might be able to buy a Chevrolet cheaper from the guy down the street, but if you want to be taken care of and know it will work, you go to a Chevrolet dealer.
Thanks for the feedback and for sharing your experiences, guys. Reassuring to hear your thoughts, as undercutting is one of the few things stopping us fully GPL-licensing our own themes (another is that some of our themes contain stock images, which aren’t licensed under GPL-compatible terms).
I suppose time will tell just how much people value support and community; my guess is that a significant number would be happy to pay a 10th of the price for a theme knowing that they won’t get the same level of support; let’s hope I’m wrong.
Those people that are only interested in paying a 10th of the price, aren’t going to buy from you anyway.
They’re to cheap & will look for some illegitimate source.
Brian, I agree with all you said. Except for the point about buying Chevrolet’s, which I can’t excuse at all… 🙂
I own two Hondas, was trying to be politically correct. 🙂
Now hold on a minute, I am buying one this week!
I really couldn’t agree more.
I have had no problems implementing WordPress for clients due to the GPL. More often, the larger hump is convincing the client that they need to create their own content. Once they get over that hump and see how easy it is, however, they become excited at the prospect.
I met you at WCRDU, and talked with you for a while about how I used WP’s plugin and theme system as an inspiration for a project I’m working on for a client now. Since then I’ve learned that the majority of the development for WordPress is done as plug-ins and themes. I’ve implemented this open platform into my client’s site, and he is incredibly excited about what that means for him and his business. He knows that having an open development platform is key for a stable environment, and while he enjoys working with me, he was thrilled to hear that he won’t be locked into my services for support down the road.
I find it hard to imagine WP, or any software for that matter, having a hard time being adopted because it is GPL. As a developer and designer it encourages me to want to contribute, and as a small business owner it makes me feel good knowing I’m not forcing my clients to use my services every time I provide them with an open source/GPL solution.
“Rights for users” is a red herring. 99% of software users could care less what license is on the software. They simply *use* it.
FLOSS licenses are based on (re)distribution and derivative works. Users don’t do that. Only developers do that. And many developers will prefer a license that is more permissive, and grants the developer wider rights to their derivative works. (I’ve been talking about “licensing pressure” for years now; about the tendency/shift towards permissive because *developers* want more flexibility, so they demand it from their substrates)
I believe the fallacy at play here is that “GPL software is less successful than permissively-based software.” Emprically, that is flat out wrong. As you point out, Matt, there is a TON of highly-successful GPL software out there.
WordPress is GPL, and it has a tremendous community around it. But it is wrong to conflate those two concepts and show some sort of causal relationship. There is no proof that your successful community is *caused* by your selection of GPL, and no way to show what your community would be today *if* you had chosen a permissive license.
Greg: Users don’t care until it impacts them personally, you mean. Which is where it counts and why it’s important to have the right license to protect the user’s freedoms.
I cannot think of a single family member that has ever been affected by the license on any piece of software that they have ever used. Not one.
Again: 99% of users simply do not care. Ever.
That said: you obviously missed my point. Matt’s post attempted to show some causality between WordPress’ license and its community. There is none. He also said it is for “protecting the people”, but that is absurd since “the people” don’t even know what “license” means, nor could they do anything with any rights that the license gives them. My mother certainly isn’t going to alter WordPress to suit her needs.
People who are aware of licenses are a vanishingly small percentage of users. And an even smaller percentage want to *do* anything with those rights. And an even *smaller* percentage care about Freedoms, rather than accruing rights to (re)distribute and create derivative works.
I have no issues with Free Software, nor its advocates. I simply disagree with some of Matt’s assertions in his post.
One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. from his 1963 speech at WMU.
“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.”
hehe… I take it that we’re supposed to read that as “[licensing] can restrain the [people who don’t want to receiprocate]”.
But I think a discussion of the philosophy behind reciprocal and permissive licenses may be beyond the scope of this post and its comment stream. 🙂 🙂
I’d like to know if plugins that I create only for use on my own sites need to be released under GPL? in other words, these are plugins that are not intended to be distributed to anyone else. And the same for themes – if I create a custom theme from scratch which I will only use on my own site, does this need to be GPL too?
The GPL only kicks in when you distribute things, which doesn’t count things you use for yourself or create for clients. Check out the GPL FAQ for more information on this sort of thing.
The WordPress core is GPL. I get that. Every plugin I have developed, I have released under GPL. But if a client comes to me and requests a custom theme, is it your position that the GPL license of the core compels me to release the bespoke theme’s PHP for free use?
If I had hardcoded the client’s AuthorizeNet username into the code, is that now open-sourced as well?
Respectfully, I have not modified the core code, and these bespoke themes are not subject to GPL.
Jeff, that’s a common misunderstanding, but in short:
Yes, the themes are subject to the GPL (since they are derivative works of WordPress itself), but…
No, the people who own that theme (your client) are under no obligation to distribute it.
Only in the event that they *choose* to exercise their freedom to distribute it do they have to be concerned with making sure that they do so in a way that in turn preserves those same freedoms, by passing on the license.
This article misses the point. “Getting Pretty Lonely” did not suggest that GPL projects could not be successful, it was suggesting that under more liberal licenses, these project might have been EVEN MORE successful.
Probably not — most open source developers are fine with the GPL, as evidenced by the fact that most open source projects are licensed under the GPL. If WordPress’ license allowed proprietary extensions and derivatives some of the plugins and themes that are currently open and GPL so people can build on them would be proprietary and WordPress would have fewer users as a result. Communities that have allowed non-GPL extensions, like Joomla, have reversed their decision and now are going down the exact same path as WordPress. (Presumably because they were being less successful as a result of their earlier decision.)
There are at least a couple ways that a community could grow with a license less restrictive than the GPL. First, by partial integration of proprietary developers’ code to the community’s; second, by providing an environment that welcomes proprietary add-ons, thus adding expandable value to the free software for the users.
“Most open source developers are fine with the GPL” is the problem in this thinking, though. Most GPL developers are fine with the GPL, but it cuts out people who might, for their own purposes, interact with the open source community if they didn’t have to release all of their code. If BSD style licenses were more common, corporations would benefit by not having to reinvent the components provided by open source developers. Meanwhile, they could choose to integrate at least some of their code back to the community at their discretion.
On the plug-in front, plug-ins are essential to the success of certain programs. A photographer friend says he spent a good deal more on Photoshop plug-ins than he did on Photoshop. The developers of expensive plug-ins are not likely to switch to a program that would mandate their software be open source, but they would gladly provide plug-ins to an open source program if that’s where the market is.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic in a well-structured way. Until recently, the things I’ve heard on the topic have seemed more vague and sounded more like a personal preference and “this is what WP.org is going to support” rather than “this is what the license says”. So, the letter from the Software Freedom Law Center was really good too. Thanks for publishing it…
Now I have to go and think hard about whether I have to change my whole site and business.
p.s. Love the new site design! New since the last time I stopped by anyway. Footer doesn’t line up in a narrower browser though (1024 wide).
John Gruber has posted a comment on his site, here’s my response:
I don’t think either of us said that most users know or care about the license (until it screws them), but developer choice obviously has an impact on a software project’s third-party ecosystem and thus attractiveness. Also Catia has a cool comment about the Brazilian government caring.
Which I’ve suggested is false. If magically tomorrow WordPress was BSD-licensed, some percentage of currently GPL plugins and themes would go under a more proprietary license, like they did for a while in the theme world. We also have a good example in the Joomla world which previously allowed for any sort of licensed extensions (BSD-style) and switched their stance because it was harming the community.
See above about other communities switching their stance. Also, many open source licenses are GPL compatible, so developers are completely free to create BSD-licensed plugins for WP.
Except some percentage of those extensions will be proprietary, which hurts users by reducing their choice, and it discourages pro-GPL developers which judging by open source license choice is about 70% of all OS developers.
Indeed, some probably would. But as evidenced by the “premium theme revolution”, this helped the WordPress community. I can’t tell you how many people I personally saw adopt WordPress because of a premium theme which was proprietarily licensed.
Obviously, things have changed since a year ago, and I’m glad they have. I think it only fair that if you profit from theme that is built on WordPress, you should honor the intentions of those who built the original system in the first place. Your intentions have been made clear, and I think it only right to honor that.
Nevertheless, I don’t necessarily think that NOT licensing under the GPL is harmful to the community. I think the whole premium theme deal pretty much proved that, no?
I think that was mostly a function of the investment into CMS features and the marketing and support around premium theme sites, it obviously didn’t have to do with the license because after the switch they’re all doing fine. And it definitely did stifle developer innovation, as people couldn’t build on others’ code.
Granted. But the success of premium themes, under their proprietary licenses, attracted new theme developers AND new users.
And while code couldn’t be built upon, ideas could. Which, for me, is the way it would be no matter what, since I’ve always been one who tried to figure things out for myself, rather than (lazily) pull code directly from someone else.
But it’s no matter, really, since (as you pointed out) the business model has transitioned well to GPL. But I think proprietary licenses can be just as successful, and I think the original premium theme movement is evidence of that.
My employer* will as a matter of policy always stay away from GPL-licensed software, and recommend the same to its clients.
This is only an anecdote, or conversely, a data point, in support for Daniel’s position.
* a 200 people IT service company providing software development and integration to large accounts and administration.
If that is how big is your company, surely it could afford to pay whatever program or software it needs…so there is no point in using GPL.
But for us small timers, GPL is a kind of a great blessing from heaven!
Matt, this above needs a little more elaboration please. (Also a matrix of compatible licenses across the board would be really helpful, for non-developing weekenders like me.)
For the context: I remember back in 2005, someone from another blog engine asked me for a more “liberal” license on my first and only the theme I created to-date. He apparently wanted to include it among a list derived themes. Since I was more than happy to share, I said he could use it for whatever he wanted. (I suppose in the end, it was the CSS file and the html structure that was of value.)
So for those of us that just want to share our little stuff, without seeking a return of investment 🙂 other than knowing happily that people use your stuff (like you do, or wordpress.org itself does for example), what license(s) would you recommend, and how are they compatible? Also, what if someone just wants to share without a license or “as you like”? Is that possible with WordPress themes—as in structure and style? (A licensing 1-2-3 in the context of WordPress for n00bs would be really helpful.)
There’s a quick explanation of License compatibility in the GPL FAQ and a list of GPL compatible licenses too.
Thanks, that helps.
A nice post from Gina Trapani:
Very interesting article Matt. I must confess that I should give the GNU GPL a good read, but I agree that WP an many other great bits of software would have gotten nowhere without it being open.
Where would we be without open source code that’s free to use, modify and redistribute? Rubbing two sticks together to turn on our pc with windows 95 on it, that’s where.
There is one thing I wonder though… how do you feel about services like [url removed], where they charge you to keep access to their plugins and updates? I’m torn… it cuts into the spirit of OS but at the same time they provide quality plugins that to be fair require a lot of work to maintain and update.
I may agree or disagree with their specific business model but if the license is GPL, then it’s legal.
politically well put 🙂
Matt, brilliant response. My own version is here: http://ahren.org/code/bit/gpl-fud-round-n1
Yup. I do agree with Chris and Linus “software should be free”, but he uses and likes the GPL.
Excellent reply. Im tired of reading articles attacking the GPL because it doesnt give Big Co’s the right to make some free software less free.
You are right. Why can we not celebrate a less greedy world with WordPress as one of the prime example?
Why would anybody attack a system where giving is the main thread?
We hope that even in the online world, we should stop our greed nature and appreciate giving to other.
Great article – but it dipped at the end – you know the part where the US ‘forked’ from England. Well it didn’t, it forked from Britain and the British Empire.
England, as well as Wales and Scotland form Great Britain. When you include Northern Ireland you are talking about the United Kingdom.
Still, at least you got the bit about GPL right 🙂
Matt – on a much lighter note than the previous stream of comments, your mustard yellow author comment highlighting seems to break after you go three layers deep in replies to replies to replies. (See the July 6, 8:15 pm comment and others following)
Also I really dig the typographic treatment of this new theme. If I may stray away from the WordPress world and into the past a bit, I give the new theme 2 eProps!
In my very short blogging experience, I could not think a world without WordPress. For a non-techie like me, WordPress as a blogging platform presents the best option available there is.
Just like the rest of the millions of bloggers worldwide using WordPress, I am forever grateful that WordPress is available for free.
Please continue the excellent job.