Over the weekend WordPress co-creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg called out Wix for copying GPL code from the WordPress mobile app and distributing it in its proprietary app. He identified two repositories that Wix forked in order to bring the GPL-licensed WordPress Rich Text Editor into its app.
“If I were being charitable, I’d say, ‘The app’s editor is based on the WordPress mobile app’s editor.’ Mullenweg said. “If I were being honest, I’d say that Wix copied WordPress without attribution, credit, or following the license.”
Even though the Wix app is made up of different modules and libraries, the GPL requires that the entire application be GPL-licensed since Wix is distributing the app with GPL code in it. Open sourcing the entire app’s code under the GPL is the only way to resolve the license violation, according to Mullenweg.
“Your app’s editor is built with stolen code, so your whole app is now in violation of the license,” Mullenweg said. Some took issue with use of the term “stolen code” in connection with public, open source repositories, but the effect is the same regardless of Wix’s intention. Wix distributed GPL code without respecting its license, putting new limitations on it instead of preserving its freedoms. That code was not legally available to be repurposed without following its license.
“You’d probably be in the clear if you had used just the original editor we started with (ZSSRichTextEditor, MIT licensed),” Automattic’s General Counsel Paul Sieminski commented on the issue. “Instead, Wix took our version of the editor which has 1000+ original commits on top of the original MIT editor, that took more than a year to write. We improved it. A lot. And Wix took those improvements, used them in their app but then stripped out all of the important rights that they’re not legally allowed to take away.”
Mullenweg called for Wix to release its entire mobile app under the GPL, as required by the license, and make the source code available so that others can build on it and learn from it.
“If you want to close the door on innovation, Wix, that’s your decision to make — just write your own code,” Mullenweg said. “If you’re going to join the open source community, play by the open source rules.”
Wix CEO Responds, Neglects to Address GPL Licensing Issues
Mullenweg’s open letter to Wix took the company by surprise. Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami responded the next day on the company’s blog with a tone that imposed an artificial sense of fraternity in order to make the original allegation appear to be an over reaction. “Wow, dude I did not even know we were fighting,” Abrahami said. He cited Wix’s manifold contributions to open source software on the company’s GitHub account and their admiration of WordPress’ commitment to giving back.
His artful deflection avoids the licensing issue completely and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the GPL:
Yes, we did use the WordPress open source library for a minor part of the application (that is the concept of open source right?), and everything we improved there or modified, we submitted back as open source, see here in this link – you should check it out, pretty cool way of using it on mobile native. I really think you guys can use it with your app (and it is open source, so you are welcome to use it for free). And, by the way, the part that we used was in fact developed by another and modified by you.
GPL compliance, however, requires more than a show of open source spirit. Abrahami did not address the requirement that the entire mobile app be released as GPL but offered a vague statement about sharing code.
“If you need source code that we have, and we have not yet released, then, most likely we will be happy to share, you only need to ask,” Abrahami said. It is still unclear as to whether his statement means the company will release the entire mobile app under the GPL or not. However, the company indicated on Twitter that they will release the app on GitHub.
— Wix.com (@Wix) October 30, 2016
The other option would be for the company to completely remove any GPL code from its app and use the original MIT-licensed library for the editor.
“The WordPress GPL Rich Text component in question, is actually a wrapper around another Rich Text component named ZSSRichTextEditor which is licensed MIT,” Wix lead engineer Tal Kol said in the article he published over the weekend. “In retrospect it would have been easier to use it directly.”
Using the original library would stop the current GPL infringement but does not erase the fact that the company has already violated the license by distributing the code.
Wix has not yet officially announced what it plans to do, but at the time of publishing the company continues to distribute GPL code inside its proprietary app.
Mullenweg Is Willing to Go to Court to Protect the GPL
According to the GNU.org GPL FAQ, the copyright holders of the software have the power to enforce the GPL, as the license is a copyright license. Copyright holders are advised to inform developers of the GPL-covered software if they see a violation. With the GPLv2, the only way for license violators to receive back their rights after violation is to petition the copyright holder. Mullenweg has already identified a path to compliance for Wix.
Although many in the open source community are itching for a definitive court case involving the GPL, Mullenweg said his preferred outcome is to see Wix open source its mobile app.
“I would much rather they just release their app as GPL rather than have to get into a legal fight,” he replied to commenters on his blog.
When I asked if he is willing to take the matter to court if Wix does not comply, Mullenweg said, “We would of course go to court to protect the GPL.” He also said that if Wix decides to pursue the other avenue, “removing the library would fix it going forward, but not for things that already infringed.” Mullenweg could not say what Automattic will or won’t do in a legal context regarding the past infringement, as the situation is still developing.
This weekend’s debate between Mullenweg and Wix sparked discussions across social media platforms as well as blog post responses about how the the GPL affects the industry. It also shows how divisive the license can be even among open source software proponents. Mullenweg, who is known inside the WordPress community as a zealous defender of the GPL, has demonstrated a willingness to go to battle over violations of the license in the past.
Many in the WordPress and Wix communities took issue with the public handling of the matter, but ultimately the controversy is not a personal matter between Mullenweg and Wix. The proprietary mobile app distributes GPL code that was the work of many contributors. WordPress’ open source code was built from the hard work of people who were willing to give that time and energy because they believe in the project and the freedoms that its license guarantees. Wix’s disrespect of that license illegally co-opts those contributions for the company’s closed source app.
“My program will have liberty, or never be born.”
The GPL license is holistic in the sense that all parts of an application are connected – if one part bears the freedoms of the GPL, the entire app benefits from the GPL and must be therefore be open for all. The GPL is the reason WordPress exists and the reason why Mullenweg is so passionate about it. If b2/cafelog had not been GPL-licensed, Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little would not have been able to build on it.
One of the questions in the GNU GPL FAQ asks, “What if my school might want to make my program into its own proprietary software product?” This question addresses how many universities try to restrict the use of the knowledge and information they (and their students) develop, a problem that also exists in commercial businesses. The GNU recommendation for developers wanting to ensure their software is allowed to be GPL licensed is to raise the issue at the earliest possible stage for the most leverage:
So we recommend that you approach them when the program is only half-done, saying, ‘If you will agree to releasing this as free software, I will finish it.’ Don’t think of this as a bluff. To prevail, you must have the courage to say, ‘My program will have liberty, or never be born.’
This powerful sentiment is one that many GPL software contributors have adopted as a way of life. They contribute code on the basis that it will be passed on with all its freedoms. Taking GPL-licensed code and putting it in a proprietary app is an affront to their contributions.
Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami’s casual response identifies both parties as open source proponents who are working to make the web a better place. This response misses the mark because it fails to recognize WordPress’ 13-year history with the GPL and how deeply it has impacted the software’s trajectory and ability to make the web a better, more open place. This license and WordPress’ commitment to user freedoms has been the project’s true north from its inception.
When a project is given the GPL license, it makes that code and the license’s freedoms inseparable. Essentially, that code isn’t legally available to anyone without those freedoms in place. Regardless of whether Wix’s deflection of the issue is motivated by ignorance of the GPL or malicious intent, the company has to answer for its misuse of the software. The ball is now in Wix’s court – to comply with what the GPL license requires or take its own interpretation to court.