In October 2016, Matt Mullenweg called out Wix for using GPL-licensed code from the WordPress mobile app and distributing it in its proprietary app. After identifying a path for Wix to comply with the license, Mullenweg confirmed he would be willing to go to court to protect the GPL.
Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami’s response to the allegations failed to address the issue of licensing, dodging the question with references to other open source contributions. Abrahami seemed to indicate that Wix would open source its mobile app but was not clear whether it would be GPL licensed:
“We always shared and admired your commitment to give back, which is exactly why we have those 224 open source projects, and thousands more bugs/improvements available to the open source community and we will release the app you saw as well,” Abrahami said.
The Wix Twitter account also gave the impression that the entire app would be released under the GPL:
We'll release the code on Github, where we also shared our previous projects: https://t.co/FBhp2Kd5wn
— Wix (@Wix) October 30, 2016
Publicly communicating these intentions bought the company time to educate its developers on the implications of the GPL and find another path forward for the app.
The app has not been released under the GPL and Wix has discontinued development on the GPL-licensed repositories. On November 1, 2016, Wix changed the license on the react-native-wordpress-editor, the repository that was forked from the WordPress mobile app, to GPLv2. The next day, they began work on react-native-zss-rich-text-editor, a new repository forked from the original MIT-licensed library that the WordPress mobile app code built upon.
It appears that Wix never planned on complying with the GPL, since the company immediately began working on an alternative approach. Wix has since released updates to its mobile apps and presumably has incorporated its own editor component that is based on the original MIT-licensed library.
It is not clear whether Wix completely started over with its fork or if the company’s developers incorporated some of the commits previously made in the WordPress mobile app’s GPL-licensed fork. Wix has not responded to numerous attempts to contact them for an official statement.
Wix Invents Its Own “Enhanced” MIT License for the Forked Library
Here’s where the story takes an odd turn. Instead of distributing the new editor code under a standard open source license, Wix has written its own license, which it is calling the “Enhanced” MIT license (EMIT). It explicitly prohibits relicensing under the GPL and requires the developer to license modifications under the EMIT:
This license is exactly like the MIT License, with one exception – Any distribution of this source code or any modification thereof in source code format, must be done under the Enhanced MIT license and not under any other licenses, such as GPL.
Furthermore, the license prohibits the code being redistributed under any copyleft license:
when the Software is distributed as source code, the licensee is prohibited to change the license of the Software to any “viral” copyleft-type license, such as, inter alia: GPL, LGPL, EPL, MPL, etc.
Wix explained the reason behind the creation of the new license in its introduction, citing what it calls a “bug” in the MIT license. The MIT permits developers to re-license their modifications as GPL. The text of the “Enhanced” MIT license characterizes this practice as bullying:
We believe MIT license has a bug since it allows others to use it against its nature. Our belief is that the MIT license is intended to make source code available to anyone who wants to use it without additional obligations, but we have found cases where someone takes a project licensed under MIT license, adds a few lines of source code to it, and then changes the licensing to a different, more restrictive license which is against the nature and the intent of the MIT license. By doing so, the source code released under the original MIT is no longer a true “free/open” source code, thus undermining the intention of the original creator of the source code.
The concept of this Enhanced MIT license is simple and more robust – you can do what you want with this source code, exactly like any other MIT license, but if you release it again as open source (even if modified), you must release it under this Enhanced MIT license – to be clear, this is not a “viral” license, it only refers to the actual source code released under this license and not to other components interacting with it. If GPL is a viral license, this license can be described as a “robust” one as it prevents licensing changes that are against its nature and it defends its own licensing principles. The essence of the Enhanced MIT license is to prevent bullies from using open source code that is truly free and open under the MIT License and turning it into other viral and more restrictive licenses – such as GPL.
The license has only ever been used in this particular instance and does not appear to have been written by a lawyer or someone who has studied copyright and licensing issues professionally. I contacted the Free Software Foundation’s licensing and compliance team regarding the legitimacy of Wix’s “Enhanced” MIT license. FSF copyright and licensing associate Donald Robertson III said the team is currently reviewing it and may require legal counsel before making a definitive comment. When they have completed the review, they will publish a statement and list the license in the FSF directory of free and non-free software licenses. These are also broken down into copyleft and GPL-compatible classifications.
“As you can see from the GPL-incompatible licenses, there are plenty of free software licenses that are incompatible with the GPL, and many of those licenses would be incompatible with other copyleft licenses on the same basis,” Robertson said. “So it is possible for a license to be free even if it doesn’t work well with the GPL. We’ll have to do some review on this particular license before we can make any comment specific to it.”
Wix has not submitted its EMIT license to the Open Source Initiative, a community-recognized organization that acts as stewards of the Open Source Definition (OSD) and also reviews and approves licenses as OSD-conformant. OSI has not yet responded to my inquiry about the legitimacy of the license, but I spoke with Karl Fogel, an open source specialist who consults with organizations on open source licensing and the implications of using it in business.
“This so-called ‘Enhanced MIT’ license is poorly drafted and internally inconsistent,” Fogel said. “I feel on safe ground in saying that were it ever submitted to the OSI for approval, it would be rejected quickly.”
Fogel also commented on the inherent contradictions in the license’s introduction and permissions.
“An obvious internal inconsistency is that in the Introduction, it says that redistribution in source code format ‘must be done under the Enhanced MIT license and not under any other licenses, such as GPL,'” Fogel said. “But then later, in point (2) of the conditional permissions grant, it says ‘when the Software is distributed as source code, the licensee is prohibited to change the license of the Software to any ‘viral’ copyleft-type license, such as, inter alia: GPL, LGPL, EPL, MPL, etc.’
“So the Introduction is saying that redistribution is not permitted under any other open source license, but then the permissions grant section only bars redistribution under copyleft licenses, leaving open the possibility to distribute under other non-copyleft licenses. Which is it?”
According to OSI, copyleft “refers to licenses that allow derivative works but require them to use the same license as the original work.” In requiring the EMIT to be used for derivative works, the license adopts the viral nature Wix ostensibly wanted to avoid with the GPL. This emasculates the MIT, robbing it of its essential freedoms. For this reason and many others, the EMIT appears to be an illegitimate variant of the MIT.
“A larger issue is that the reasoning in the Introduction about how the standard MIT license supposedly has a ‘bug’ makes no sense,” Fogel said. “It asserts that redistribution under an open source copyleft license would somehow be more restrictive than not doing source redistribution at all (e.g., as with a standard proprietary license). There is no sensible definition of the word ‘restrictive; in which releasing code under a copyleft license would restrict someone’s use of that code more than not having the code in the first place would restrict them.”
Fogel does not think the EMIT is a valid derivative of the MIT license and is not convinced that it can be considered a license at all.
“It is very clear that a lawyer did not write this license,” Fogel said. “I think Abrahami must have written it himself. I hesitate to even call it a license; it’s not clear what a judge would do with it, except perhaps sell tickets.”
Wix’s EMIT License is a Hostile Reaction to the Call for GPL Compliance
The EMIT license not only takes shots at the GPL but also injects a moral pronouncement against all those who subscribe to the tenets of copyleft licensing. The restrictions in the EMIT effectively “weaponize the license” against other open source projects, as one Reddit user said in a comment on the situation. This encompasses a large portion of the open source community.
Wix may not be able to publicly admit its violation of the GPL, as it has not yet answered for the past infringement of distributing the code in its mobile app. In looking back over the timeline of events, Wix’s public communication that implied it would comply with the GPL was disingenuous, as the team was scrambling behind the scenes to fork the original library and slap a new “anti-copyleft” license on it. The company has no respect for the GPL and, in fact, has communicated its disdain for the license in the language of its new EMIT license.
“I remember reading this exchange when it happened,” Fogel said. “This is not a case of gray areas or ‘the truth lies somewhere in the middle.’ Matt Mullenweg of WordPress is 100% right, and Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami is, quite simply, wrong. Mullenweg was extremely direct about what the problem was and how to fix it. Abrahami’s response was an evasive mishmash of brazen non sequiturs and willful refusal to acknowledge Mullenweg’s point, which was simply that if Wix is going to use WordPress code that is distributed under the GNU General Public License, then Wix has to follow the terms of the GPL like anyone else.
“Abrahami’s poor behavior could only have been intentional,” Fogel said. “I just don’t see any other way to interpret it, given how easy to understand Mullenweg’s letter is, and how clear the issues are here.”
Wix’s illegal use of GPL code in a proprietary app could easily be chalked up to ignorance or an oversight if the company had simply attempted to comply. Instead, they wrote a license that swipes back at copyleft proponents everywhere. The EMIT actually manages to trivialize both the GPL and the MIT in one fell swoop.
“The GPL is not a disease,” said Lawrence Rosen in a document titled The Unreasonable Fear of Infection. “It is designed to satisfy certain philosophical and economic objectives that are widely shared by many members of the open source community.”
In writing its own “Enhanced” MIT license Wix has demonstrated a careless disregard for open source licensing and hostility towards those who use copyleft licenses to guarantee user freedoms.
Although some onlookers in the open source community disapproved of the two CEO’s handling the disagreement in open letters, there are plenty more who appreciate that the issue is being hammered out in public. Fogel said he hopes the situation “will draw some attention to the fact that the GPL actually means something and can be enforced.”