Mullenweg Takes Aim at Wix over GPL Abuses, Wix Response Fails to Address Licensing Issue

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.

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.

35 Comments


  1. It also might be worth listening to the experience from the Linux guys, why legal GPL fights are bad for the GPL:

    historically the SFC’s biggest victories were with forcing companies using the Busybox [a Linux toolkit for embedded environments] to comply with the GPL. While the developers won in court, Torvalds claims that all that really happened was “a huge amount of bickering, and both individual and commercial developers and users fleeing in droves. Both the original maintainer and the maintainer that started the lawsuits ended up publicly saying it was a disaster.”

    Therefore, when he looks at Kuhn’s legal saber-rattling, Torvalds response is: “Let’s be clear about this: lawsuits destroy. They don’t ‘protect.’ Lawsuits destroy community. They destroy trust. They would destroy all the goodwill we’ve built up over the years by being nice.”

    In short: “The fact is, lawsuits (and threats of lawsuits) do not make for friends. You just look like a bully.”

    Instead, Torvalds prefers Kroah-Hartman’s approach: “We do it quietly, working with companies, from within, convincing them that yes, this license that seems so strange and crazy is really worth following, not only because it is the law (companies ignore the law all the time, it’s called risk management), but because it turns out it is the right thing to do from a business point of view. It’s cheaper to do so, the benefit is huge, and the return on investment is immense when they join together to work with us, instead of off in their own bubble.”

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  2. How come WordPress doesnt mention that it is a fork of b2/cafelog?

    That’s what we mere mortals have to do if we create a derivative. We mention WordPress.

    I mentioned that my Hello Spock plugin is based on Hello Dolly.

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    1. Requiring attribution is specifically **against** the GPL. It is a condition which is not related to your software which might be impossible to comply with in big projects.

      You attribute because you are polite not because you must, and wordpress do not attribute to the many other projects it uses – kses, jquery, backbone, masonry, and probably some more that I don’t remember right now.

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      1. That is absolutely not true, the GPL itself requires attribution under section 1:

        1. You may copy and distribute verbatim copies of the Program’s source code as you receive it, in any medium, provided that you conspicuously and appropriately publish on each copy an appropriate copyright notice and disclaimer of warranty; keep intact all the notices that refer to this License and to the absence of any warranty; and give any other recipients of the Program a copy of this License along with the Program.

        The GPL disallows further restrictions on users (with regard to the topics it covers) that aren’t in the license in section 6 (“You may not impose any further restrictions on the recipients’ exercise of the rights granted herein.”).

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      2. That is not attribution, at least not in the way I understand the word. Attribution is to the copyright holders of which in a project like wordpress there are probably thousands of.

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      3. If done properly, the copyright notices referred to in the GPL should note who the copyright holders are so attribution is, in that sense, correct. You’re quite right, however, that in a large project like WordPress it’s impossible to mention all contributors by name. That’s why a WordPress download refers to “the contributors” rather than to everyone by name; everyone seems to be OK with that. This is what the license.txt file actually says:

        “WordPress – Web publishing software Copyright 2011 by the contributors
        This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 2 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.


        This program incorporates work covered by the following copyright and permission notices:
        b2 is (c) 2001, 2002 Michel Valdrighi – m@tidakada.comhttp://tidakada.com Wherever third party code has been used, credit has been given in the code’s
 comments.
        b2 is released under the GPL and
        WordPress – Web publishing software Copyright 2003-2010 by the contributors WordPress is released under the GPL”

        If you’re interested, I’ve given my legally-oriented thoughts in “Some thoughts on the Wix mobile app story” at http://wpandlegalstuff.com/some-thoughts-on-the-wix-mobile-app-story/

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      4. The iOS app explicitly states “Copyright Automattic”, not acknowledging other contributors.

        However, I did some digging, and as it turns out, Automattic likely owns the copyright for the vast majority of the app (98.8% of all commits are by Automatticians).

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      5. Ricahrd, no. This is against the GPL and licenses that require attribution are not compatible with the GPL. Long time ago (yes I am too old) a variation of MIT type licenses required attribution, this obviously caused hell with linux distributions, and RMS/EFF decided to call this kind of licenses non compatible which is why you probably don’t see them anymore (OPENSSL had such a license).

        Attribution is not related to anything “done properly” with the GPL, it is just politeness which is not forced by the license.

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      6. Ryan, Legaly, what automattic claims is not important. If there is no explicit copyright assignment from the other contributors to automattic, then the copyright is mostly there, but not more then that.

        The specifics are important here, and it does sound like automattic is the copyright holder for the code in dispute, but courts are a crazy place, you really don’t want to get there and try to prove that X wrote the code when he was working for automattic and not in his free time on the weekend.

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  3. As I recall you can’t put GPL software in the App Store and still be compatible with the GPL since the App Store ToS restricts what the user can do with the software. Will Automattic comply with the GPL and pull the app from the app store?

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    1. The interpretation that one cannot put GPL code in the iOS app store is incorrect. A great many open source apps exist and are distributed thru the app store. Apple does not block them on that basis, and the idea that the gpl is incompatible with the terms of service of the app store is also incorrect if you are the copyright holder of the app in question. The copyright holder cannot violate their own license, as the license only applies to other people. That’s what a license is.

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      1. The example charts I posted before were pointed out to be misleading in many ways. If you have any suggestions for a chart way to display that data, I’d love to hear it. I don’t consider that data private in any way.

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  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see a single contribution by Matt Mullenweg to the software in question. Therefore, he does not hold any copyright to it and has no power to enforce the GPL in this particular instance.

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    1. He personally do not, but some of it might be done as a work for automattic which will mean that as the CEO he does hold the copyrights. Anyway, even if he don’t hold the copyright the only difference that it will make is that he can not personally sue them, and I assume that no one wants to go to court and start arguing about if the use of that code is a violation but still legal because it falls under “fair use” part of the copyright law.

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  5. Small typo:

    “Your app’s editor is built with stolen code, so your whole app is now in violation of the license,” Mullenwg said

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  6. Good on Matt for holding those greedy corps responsible, it is one of the perhaps few benefits to having Automattic around.

    That being said, as other users have mentioned, even selling your app or offering various web hosting related services are technically against the GPL license in many instances.

    Certain plugins have even been “banned” from WordPress for not attributing code to other plugin authors, which isn’t required by the license in fact (at least to my knowledge).

    TL;DR: Good on Matt and Automattic, but the license needs a lot more clarity (or evolution) and if wordpress.org or Automattic want to be the protectors of the realm, they should eliminate hypocrisy.

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    1. The GPL does not prohibit selling software. It does not set the price that you sell it for. (It does however limit what someone can charge you if they have distributed a binary version of the software to you, and you request the source code from them.) Please see https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/selling.en.html (on the GNU site, who are the ones who wrote the license.)

      As far as the offering various web hosting related services, can you clarify what situations would be in violation? Are you thinking of the AGPL version of the GPL license? (Even then it still wouldn’t be a violation to host it, even with changes, as long as you make the changed code available on request.)

      Please make sure you know the specifics of the GPL licenses before you make claims about them — much uncertainty and halfway false information about the GPL licenses has been perpetuated through the years by people who thought they knew what it requires, and it has scared some people away when their use would be fully in compliance.

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  7. This is probably one of those news articles here on the Tavern that should include a blurb reminding folks that WP Tavern is owned by Matt Mullenweg. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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  8. Spending time, money, and attention on court diverts it to attorneys instead of that valuable time money, and attention spent on software.

    but the license needs a lot more clarity (or evolution) and if wordpress.org or Automattic want to be the protectors of the realm, they should eliminate hypocrisy.

    And this is where I’d rather see attorney’s attention spent – on clarity and brevity where possible in defining the license terms. Not in court enforcing them.

    On education, so that the many communities who use and contribute to OSS projects using GPL or various “MIT” licenses are clear on how to do so correctly.

    Maybe too idealistic to hope for, but then these kinds of situations would be less likely to happen intentionally or inadvertently. Without opponents you can’t play the sport, but you also can’t play well if everyone’s trying to play the same game by a different set of rules. Or without knowing the rules.

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  9. Wow! Wix has gone wild. Their mobile app is defective by design. I’m going to boycott Wix.

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    1. Why? Isn’t that the best place to resolve legal disputes?

      Personally, I would have preferred if Matt had called the CEO of Wix to voice his concerns. Don’t these guys have each other’s phone numbers? If not, they should.

      Instead, Matt went with the Friday blog post calling Wix a rip-off of WordPress (an insult to WordPress IMHO) and accusing the person who made the app a code thief. Less then 24 hours later, the engineer responsible for creating the Wix mobile app publishes a response on Medium, which many people then publicly criticized for not addressing all the issues.

      Yeah, maybe it didn’t, but when you’re accused of being a thief by someone as massively popular as Matt Mullenweg, I imagine the desire to defend yourself as quickly as possible is quite high.

      Whatever happens with this issue, once again I believe it points out that people just don’t understand GPL very well. I consider myself one of those people.

      Just an example, if I understand GPL, I would be within my rights to take a WooCommerce payment gateway extension that Automattic sells for $79 and give it away for free. Maybe I just don’t understand the GPL, because this seems like a jerk move.

      Even though I’ve read about GPL, I prefer just to think I don’t get it. The idea of just giving away code that other people pay for seems dishonest.

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      1. It does not have to be resolved in court. As a previous comment pointed out, lawsuit is not a win-win for GPL.

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  10. Technically WordPress for Android is licensed under GPLv2. Wix is under no legal obligation to open-source the entire app.

    They should, however, host repositories (with attributions) that include any changes for the WP-derived libraries that they forked.

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    1. This is about the Wix app wwhich is being distributed there for source code needs to be made available.

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      1. I don’t think anything in my post questioned that. But Matt is incorrect that the remedy is for Wix to open-source the entire application. Wix is only required to share GPLv2 components. Which may be most of the app – but still – not the entire app.

        Matt cannot, and frankly should not, demand Wix open-source their entire app. If Automattic felt that was what they wanted WordPress for Android to be subjected to, they should have licensed it under GPLv3, not GPLv2.

        There is no statutory penalty for violating GPLv2 other than to bring it into compliance. That is what Wix should do, and what Automattic should demand/compel them to do. The problem is, it doesn’t benefit Automattic much to go to the effort to do that. Hence why GPL lawsuits accomplish little in most cases.

        I suspect Wix didn’t feel that it was going to be as big of a deal as this has become, but there’s an undercurrent here. Wix has made a lot of money by taking WordPress and turning it into a commercial platform. They have become a direct competitor to WordPress.com using WordPress.

        Their success in this regard – rightly or wrongly – is why Wix should have known they would be held to such strict scrutiny.

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      2. Well that’s helpful (sarcasm). Care to provide a reason why?

        The key difference (in this situation) between GPLv2 and GPLv3 is the dyanamic-linker aspects. That is why per GPLv2, Wix only has to share the WordPress for Android-sourced GPL code, and any changes they may have made (if any).

        Had GPLv3 been employed, Wix would have to also share any code that is dynamically-linked with the WordPress for Android-sourced code, which could include the entire app (minus graphical assets – something Matt learned the hard way).

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  11. Looks like they’re starting to comply to me – they’ve now updated their editor repository with GPL licensing so I assume we’ll see the app source code soon.

    I still think that doing this in public wasn’t the best approach – some people are already scared of using GPL, and this doesn’t help at all – but I guess it serves as a lesson to all companies that use GPL code.
    Just follow the rules and everybody wins.

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  12. Contrary to most opinions here in the comments, I’m actually quite happy it happened this way. It serves as a reminder to everybody else.

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