VersionPress Adopts The GPL Software License

When I wrote about the VersionPress project and campaign last week, a major sticking point with people was whether the project would be licensed under the GPL. After a few consultation emails and deliberation, the developers have decided the plugin will be 100% GPL licensed.

When we set off with VersionPress and the crowd-funding campaign for it, we were focused on technical things and wanted to postpone the final decision on licensing. That was a mistake and you let us know loud and clear. We heard you and have an important and exciting announcement to make today: VersionPress will be 100% GNU GPL-licensed.

This is fantastic news and I hope those who are on the fence will consider backing the project. For those that don’t know, the GPLv2 license gives users and developers a set of freedoms. Since WordPress is licensed under the GPL, these same freedoms are passed on to everyone who uses or develops the software.

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Matt Mullenweg has a great article that articulates the significance of these freedoms. When VersionPress announced they were unsure of whether to license the plugin under the GPL, it’s not because they wanted to create something proprietary. It’s because they are two software developers outside of the WordPress community, unsure of how WordPress and its community works.

Helping Newcomers Understand Why The GPL License Is Important

After I published the article about VersionPress on WP Tavern last week, several people voiced their concern over the lack of licensing details. I got in touch with Borek Bernard and explained why so many people are concerned. I explained what the GPL means to the project and the WordPress community in general. I cited examples of successful WordPress product businesses that use the GPL.

There are two camps of people. Those who know and understand the importance of the GPL and those who don’t care what license a product has as long as it works and is supported well. At this stage of the game, WordPress products not GPL licensed are at a serious disadvantage. You won’t get as much press and risk being ignored by influential members of the community. This is especially true for new products entering the market.

I Backed The Project With $20 and Here’s Why

Despite a working copy of VersionPress not being publicly available, I feel the same amount of excitement for the project that I did when I was given a GravityForms demonstration in 2009. I’m told there are already plugins available that provide version control but most of them deal with content, not with the database itself. After listening to Bernard explain some of the features and how it would work in episode 151 of WordPress Weekly, I’m even more excited to see the project succeed.

VersionPress Monitor Log
VersionPress Monitor Log

For example, let’s say there’s a change you’d like to undo but you’ve published five posts since the change. Normally, you’d have to restore a backup which would reset the entire site back to that time frame. With VersionPress, you’d be able to drill down and only undo that change without losing everything that happened after it. In a future version, it could be possible to undo changes at the user level.

This type of granular control over database changes is huge, especially if the interface is as simple as selecting an undo button. This plugin potentially has mass appeal but I fear that a lot of users wouldn’t understand the changes being registered to the database. Hopefully, the interface does a good job of pin-pointing what parts of WordPress are altering the database to make it easier to understand.

Getting Site Wide Revision Control In Core Will Be Difficult

Even if VersionPress doesn’t get off the ground, I’ve now been exposed to the idea and will highly support any developer or team of developers to create something like it. WordPress has support for Post Revisions but again, that deals with content and not with other changes throughout the site. At some point, it would be great to see a revisions API built into WordPress that can monitor revisions of more than just content. Plugins could then take advantage of the API and build on top of it. There could be multiple implementations of VersionPress to choose from.

The road to getting something like site wide revisions into core will be difficult. In 2013, Alexander Höreth participated in the Google Summer of Code project for WordPress. His project was the Code Revisions plugin which would have added revision support to the code editors in WordPress. His work was never added to the core of WordPress. If that’s anything to go by, extending revision support to other areas of core may be just a pipe dream.

That discussion took place nine months ago. Let’s start a new discussion on the positives and negatives of a site wide revision system in core. I know there are security issues to take note of but what other concerns do you have for such a system?


14 responses to “VersionPress Adopts The GPL Software License”

  1. Thanks Jeff, excellent post, I just backed the campaign too, the benefits of this initiative are eruditely communicated by yourself and the VersionControl Team. I would hope the enlightened guys at ManageWP would be very interested in this as well? It can be a fantastic SaaS possibility as well or just a healthy competitor. I wish them every success and will be sharing with the wider community because it is such a well thought through concept. Their web page contains the detail so well worth a look. WP Tavern is a great place for pickup little gems like this, so keep-up the great work :) The GPL is key of course!

  2. Since publishing this article, I’ve come under fire for using the popularity of WP Tavern to force VersionPress to use the GPL. First of all, this is not true. I didn’t force anything. The licensing decision was in their hands all along. I explained to Borek Bernard that they would be shooting themselves in the foot in the WordPress community if they chose not to use the GPL or a compatible license. I also told him influential members of the WordPress community would likely ignore the project and not publicly talk about it.

    I suggested in order to make it easy on everyone, to license it under the GPL or a compatible license but at no point did I use language that was threatening or would force their hand. The email was more a less an explanation of what I’ve observed in the WP community over the past 7 years. Had VersionPress decided to not use GPL or a compatible license, I likely would have deleted the post and that’s the last time I’d publicly promote the project. Myself and several others would have been pretty disappointed since it’s a great project but that was THEIR CHOICE to make.

    I wrote about, witnessed, and participated in many GPL debates, including the infamous Thesis debacle where the threats of lawsuits sprang up. The bottom line is, if you are entering the WordPress product market and don’t use the GPL or a compatible license, then good luck to you because you’ll need it. Matt Mullenweg is a very strong advocate of open source and in particular the GPL and the freedoms it provides.

    His influence spreads far and wide. A great example of this is when ThemeForest authors were banned from speaking, organizing, sponsoring or volunteering in WordCamps which ultimately lead Envato to allow authors the choice to GPL license their themes. What happened to Jake Caputo could happen to anyone else or a business for that matter. It’s interesting to note that was accomplished without any legal threats.

    Basically, you significantly increase your chances of success in the WordPress community by aligning with the GPL or a compatible license. Some would argue that you have no choice but I beg to differ. I can’t force any software developer to decide one way or another but there are a lot of external pressures that point towards going a particular direction. I explained those pressures and influences in the WP community to VersionPress and they ultimately decided it would be in their best interest to be GPL licensed and would give them their best shot at being funded and supported by an influential part of the community.

    • Any conversation/discussion with someone well versed in the WordPress ecosystem would have pointed out the friction a non-gpl compatible license could cause. It makes more commercial sense to adopt something compatible so it’s a good thing to bring awareness to this early in the game. I don’t think they really had put a lot of thought into it yet, as far as the licensing goes. And they got some extra exposure out of this. You’ve done them a favour:)

    • (Merely challenging the status quo of, “we’ve been doing it like this for 10 years so let’s keep doing it.” — and Jeff, don’t be mad.)

      “influential members of the WordPress community would likely ignore the project and not publicly talk about it.”

      So? Celebrity endorsement shouldn’t be leverage for a decision. Plus, I would think anyone who thought something was great would talk about it, because it is was…great.

      “if you are entering the WordPress product market and don’t use the GPL or a compatible license, then good luck to you because you’ll need it.”

      In terms of? Community adoption or being a successful business? I know of 7 figure TF authors. Success comes in all shapes and sizes, but in what context are you advising?

      “A great example …what happened to Jake Caputo could happen to anyone else or a business for that matter.”

      I could be reading this wrong, but, I don’t think that this “victory” should be celebrated? I thought blacklisting smart, hard working people was foolish and counter productive to growth/community.

      “I likely would have deleted the post and that’s the last time I’d publicly promote the project.”

      Is this the official stance of WP Tavern? Filtering to GPL WP news only?

      “Basically, you significantly increase your chances of success in the WordPress community by aligning with the GPL or a compatible license.”

      Again, what is success? Can this be proven? Says who?

      “a lot of external pressures that point towards going a particular direction.”

      Like? Am I getting black balled just for questioning this? Big Brother?

      I’m not picking a side to GPL or not to GPL. All the products we release and continue to release are licensed under GPL.

      My only issue is “falling in line with the norm.” Advising someone or an organization that you have to do it this way or else. I don’t just do things because everyone else is or that’s the way it’s been for a decade.

      I think everything can be poked and prodded.

      Sure, you may end up back in line with everyone else — but at least you tried.

      • There’s a long history around GPL in WordPress and this pressure to conform has come up many times but I don’t think this is about conforming or subjecting one’s business to what a small group of people want / or else. The reason so much importance is put on the GPL is because it is an important component to what protects the freedoms that has made WordPress such a success. Just like you wouldn’t want a bill of rights to be violated, you wouldn’t want to have all kinds of WordPress-based businesses placing their own restrictions, affecting the ecosystem and its userbase in a negative way.

        Besides, as has been said by many people before me, businesses have always had total freedom to create products with their own licensing. Businesses aren’t constrained to using WordPress. If you are going to build for this platform, it’s not a big ask to work in congruency with the platform. If your ideology doesn’t align with that, might as well pick a different platform, what is the point otherwise.

        The reason prominent voices like the Tavern put a strong preference for GPL compliant products is simple, it’s just more productive to put energy into companies that think in a WP-aligned way, because the overarching goal is to make WP and the community even better.

        • Yup, I’ve been around long enough to see it. Again, not questioning the validity or success one might (or might not) get aligning goals with WordPress and GPL. Everything my team produces is under GPL.

          I’m questioning this belief of “powers that be” and if you don’t align — you won’t be heard, talked about or taken seriously.

      • Ok, before I answer some of the points you’ve made and additional questions, let’s go over what happens if you decide to promote, encourage, write about, link to, sell, build into client work, non GPL or GPL compatible WordPress products.

        You can’t organize, speak, or volunteer at WordCamps.

        Businesses or WordPress developer shops that use or implement non GPL or compatible products into their clients sites can not be listed on (yes I know they are no longer adding to the directory) or any other official WordPress directory showcasing development agencies.

        Any site that has articles published in the WordPress dashboard feed can not actively promote, link to, review, or encourage people towards non GPL or compatible products. However, if a non-GPL plugin or theme is making headlines because of its license, chances are I’ll write about it but without linking to the product in question. The rules of the dashboard have been around for a long time and ever since the Tavern was added a few years ago, the site has operated under those guidelines.

        A commercial theme business with just one product that is not GPL or compatible licensed will not be advertised on the commercial theme directory.

        Let’s say you upload a plugin or theme to the directory and the author URL points to your website. On that website are banner ads or an affiliate link to a product that’s not GPL licensed or compatible. The plugin wouldn’t be allowed on the repo, that’s how far of a reach these guidelines go.

        Let’s also keep in mind that we’re not just talking about black and white GPLv2 or compatible licensing, but 100% GPL Licensing. I jokingly like to refer to it as MattGPL because despite split-licensing being a legit form of GPL, it’s not Matt Mullenweg compatible. To him, 100% GPL is the only true way to be GPLv2 licensed.

        Now, a few years ago you might have gotten away with being successful with a non-GPL or compatible licensed product. Thesis is a good example. But if you try it today, the deck of cards is stacked against you, not only online in the community, but at social events such as WordCamps which are excellent places to do on the ground marketing and meet with potential new clients although that should never be the primary reason for going to a WordCamp.

        With regards to ThemeForest and some authors making 7 figures, that’s a great point. There are probably plenty of moneymakers on CodeCanyon as well. Both with authors selling products not GPL or compatible licensed. That is an interesting dynamic and what’s more, they are proving to be financially successful without sites like the Tavern reviewing or mentioning their products.

        This is food for thought. I think what it proves is that those marketplaces have become so large both in developers and customers, they are able to be insulated to a degree from the community. They can just make products, sell them, live their life.

        “I could be reading this wrong, but, I don’t think that this “victory” should be celebrated? I thought blacklisting smart, hard working people was foolish and counter productive to growth/community.”

        But you see, Jake Caputo was not targeted but rather collateral damage. At the time, Themeforest only allowed for split licensing of themes which was not ok by the WordCamp guidelines, as Caputo eloquently put it, “I Am A Casualty In A War Between Giants”. So while his themes may have been awesome, his contributions to the WP community equally so and a dedicated WordCamp volunteer and speaker, not selling his themes as 100% GPL on Themeforest trumped everything else.

        When I say “significantly increase your chances of success in the WordPress community by aligning with the GPL or a compatible license.” That means myself, this site, and on Twitter and other means can talk about and promote the product or business. Getting it in front of not only influential members of the WordPress community but the general public as well. But you know, I’m in this Tavern bubble and the word success is relative. But if you look back in time, if you go ahead and release a product that’s not compatible with the GPL, and it becomes a great success, I think it’s only a matter of time before Matt does what he can to either convince the business owner to go 100% GPL, pressure them into it, or threaten legal action as he did with Thesis. Just based on observations, it really disappoints and ticks Matt off to see businesses built on top of WordPress denying customers the same freedoms they themselves are afforded through WordPress. Why even risk going through all of that trouble if you don’t have to?

        I’ve convinced a few other developers to go 100% GPL not through force, but by education. Pros and cons of each side. If you don’t “fall in line with the norm” in the beginning with a WordPress product business and the norm being 100% GPL or compatible, I think it’s only a matter of time before it happens anyways.

        I look at it this way. There’s a line in the sand. On one side, there is 100% GPL and compatible which Matt wants and fully supports, so does every other asset, including WordCamps. It’s filled with successful commercial theme and plugin businesses doing their thing, proving it can be done while licensing their products 100% GPL. On the other side is no support from .org and who knows, Matt at a desk waiting to push a big red button that changes the business owners mind and switches them to 100% GPL or compatible. I figure, why allow a business owner with a new product to go down a path that in the end, may lead to nowhere with regards to licensing when I can educate them about all of the benefits of just outright going 100% GPL or compatible and maybe having a better go at it.

        I’m going to guess I answered none of your questions :)

  3. I’m glad that this debate surrounding VersionPress came up. It helped us understand what the GPL means to the WordPress community and I’m sure it will probably help other newbies as well. I hadn’t even heard of the Matt vs. Thesis issue until your posts prompted me to start doing some research. Thanks!


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