Wix Removes GPL-Licensed WordPress Code from Mobile App, Forks Original MIT Library

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photo credit: winterofdiscontentcc

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:

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 library, 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 acomment 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.”

29 Comments


  1. Thank you for the good reporting and analysis. It does seem that rather than just correcting the mistake Wix over-compensated and introduced other issues. The process is turning out to be a learning experience for Wix. Hopefully “the third time will be the charm” and they will get it right.

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  2. That’s a crappy move by Wix.

    Local by Flywheel is a proprietary app.

    Their app includes WordPress in it in /Applications/Local by Flywheel.app/Contents/Resources/extraResources/virtual-machine/vendor.

    Are Flywheel allowed to distribute their non-free* app if it includes WordPress as part of it?

    * I mean free as in freedoms.

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    1. But Local by Flywheel is not a WordPress competitor, rather an ally. It directly helps create WordPress websites. That said, the free version of it could be open source indeed, but I ethically see no reason why it should.

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      1. Whether it’s a competitor or not has no bearing on the terms of the GPL.

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      1. This is from the url you posted:

        Combining two modules means connecting them together so that they form a single larger program. If either part is covered by the GPL, the whole combination must also be released under the GPL—if you can’t, or won’t, do that, you may not combine them.

        If the modules are included in the same executable file, they are definitely combined in one program. If modules are designed to run linked together in a shared address space, that almost surely means combining them into one program.

        If the ping Local sends to the WordPress api doesn’t return, then Local uses the bundled version of WP that comes in the app to spin up sites, if you’re working offline on a plane or train for example.

        IANAL, but that doesn’t appear to be ‘mere aggregation’, like separate programs existing on a usb key which is then distributed, they’re linked. If WP wasn’t included in the app, it wouldn’t function if you attempt to create sites offline.

        I think Flywheel need to clarify this. They’re listed on WP.org as one of the recommended hosts.

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      2. If it’s simply including a copy of the WordPress ZIP file, or downloading one based on the API response, then that definitely falls under “aggregation”. It’s just installing WordPress for you, it’s not integrating directly to it.

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      3. Downloading one based on the API response is fine because they’re not distributing it as part of a proprietary app, that’s not the issue.

        The issue is how WP is integrated into Local when the response fails (it does more than installing WP), what Locals license actually is, and what restrictions are involved.

        I’m unable to find any concrete license details for the app on their site or in the app itself, which could be an oversight on my end. When they have been asked explicitly what their license is, they say it’s proprietary without providing any further details.

        Everything may very well be GPL kosher, but they should have details of their own license on their site, in the app, or available when requested.

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      4. License or no license included, their software is still protected by copyright.

        The GPL doesn’t apply since they are not modifying any WP source code. Copying files for use in a dev environment is not considered “integrating”. They are simply including a verbatim copy of WP. That is totally “kosher” under the GPL.

        WordPress is included as a zip file which contains how WP is licensed. At least in the mac version, if you choose “About Local” from the app’s menu, they rattle off every piece of software in use and its license as well.

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  3. It was clear from the previous WIX CEOs response to Matt’s complaint that Wix could not be trusted to comply with GPL. WIX simply got caught ripping off WordPress code, and then pulled this badly crafted stunt. The sooner WordPress completes customizer advances for WordPress, the better. Until then the best course is to let Wix dig it’s own grave. I’m sure Matt and WordPress legal will take care of the rest.

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  4. I knew exactly that they would drop the GPL code after the first round. Their responses were pathetic.

    “I did not know that we were fighting”

    “We are great because we open source other stuff”

    “MIT has a ‘BUG’ ” pfff.

    Funny thing is in another context I would even get the reasoning.

    But for WIX (Wixxen is German for masturbate btw) I think the claim that the MIT did not intend this is total BS, I think this is a very personal FU to Matt a “hell no you will not make us do anything” move.

    But the funny thing is that is kind of what the GPLv3 is doing it forces people to license enhancement with the a comparable license and the only license listed as compatible is Apache 2.0 so it for now is almost as if you force the GPLv3 on people who use your code. I personally love this and specifically chose GPLv3 for my code because I personally think GPLv3 is the most ethical and best license. I don’t want Tivoisatio) and stuff done with my code.

    But they did not have any deep thought about licensing, they just have no clue, grab some stuff from the web and then get childish when they are educated about their volatilizations.

    People use MIT specifically because it has very few restrictions and thats the opposite or GPLv3 for example. So calling it “Enhanced MIT” is a oxymoron.

    They will soon learn that they are making themselves look very sill with this. They should just save themselves the trouble and stick with the WP code and the GPL or at least stick with the MIT if they now dropped the WP code.

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  5. From the Reddit thread:

    This seems to try to make EMIT just as viral as the GPL, therefore just as “bad”.

    I’ll just leave this here :D

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  6. Not surprised by this hostile move from Wix.

    After all their policy on web hosting in general follows the same pattern of disregard for the web community at large:

    from Wix Support

    “Your Wix site and all of its content is hosted exclusively on Wix’s servers, and cannot be transferred elsewhere.

    Specifically, it is not possible to export or embed files, pages or sites, created using the Wix Editor or ADI, to another external destination or host.
    It is also not possible to embed your Wix site onto an external site.”

    They also have a history of making serious mistakes without considering the consequences, remember when wix sites started getting de-indexed because they were using ajax but hadn’t implemented ajax crawling yet?

    Wix is anti-portability, anti-open source.

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  7. Correct me if I’m wrong, but WordPress.com uses WP.org source code, and yet it is not freely available for me, or others like me, to download, modify, fork, etc.

    I think Wix is a PoS and hate what they do, but lets not pretend that this is about GPL. This is about competition…period.

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    1. The code used and developed by WordPress and Automattic for WordPress is GPL and available. It always has been, and will continue to be. And perhaps it’s instructive to point out that WordPress has defended the GPL, and that Wix ripped off WordPress code, lied, and then pulled this latest “licensing” stunt, not the other way round. Competition, whether motivating or not, is simply not the point here, and shouldn’t be used as a distraction from the real culprit or their actions and their behavior.

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      1. Please tell me where I can find the full source code for WordPress.com. I’d love to take a look.

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      2. We’re talking about applications and code developed under GPL, not the entirety of all code written by a company. If you don’t know the difference, educate yourself before you make an accusation, please.

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      3. John, it won’t let me reply to yours, so I’ll reply to mine. WordPress.com uses some .org code, does it not? If so, then the entire app must be licensed under the GPL. Otherwise, MM calling Wix out for not releasing their code is hypocritical at best.

        Lastly, it might do you good to educate yourself before calling other people out, since it seems you are unfamiliar with the entirety of the complaint.

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      4. “WordPress.com uses some .org code, does it not? If so, then the entire app must be licensed under the GPL. ”

        According to MM this statement is 100% true. So where I have misunderstood?

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      5. In my understanding: open source (read: GPL) doesn’t mean it need to be publicly available for everyone.
        but if you use open source code for public (in this case: downloadable app) you must explicitly include and use the open source license (because it is open source code)

        no?

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    2. Right – and based on other articles I’ve read (including comments by Matt himself), the instant you make a single call to a WP function your entire project now has the GPL antibodies and must come under the GPL. WordPress.com does some interesting things related to scaling so I am looking forward to seeing the entire code library out on github. Let me know when that happens…

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    3. Indeed. This was a quarrel between rival CEOs, the GPL just played into Mullenweg’s hand.

      Regardless of what I think about WordPress or Wix, Mullenweg lost points with me in this whole ordeal. It’s a bit like instead of telling his friend that his wife was cheating on him, he takes out an ad in the paper and lets everybody know about it first. This could have been resolved with a phone call and then if Wix didn’t respond, call them out on it.

      Taking the “moral” high ground here doesn’t make up for being smug. Passive aggressive BS at its finest.

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  8. Chuck and Nathan, the GPL V2 (under which license WordPress is distributed), kicks in when the application or library is “distributed”. Hence it applies to the downloaded version of WordPress, and specifically in this case the downloadable Wix iOS app.
    It does not apply to the Wix website (I don’t even think there is a suggestion they are using GPL code there) nor does it apply to wordpress.com. Both wix.com and wordpress.com are “services” accessed remotely not distributed applications.
    Two additional notes:
    Most of what the extra stuff Automattic add to WordPress on wordpress.com is also GPL and available: either in the Jetpack plugin or for example here https://wpcom-themes.svn.automattic.com/. They have also released a number of os-level tools they have built for scaling.

    Note also that the above mentioned GPLV3 (and the earlier Affero GPL) addresses this ‘software as a service doesn’t need to comply’ issue. But WordPress does not use that license.

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    1. From what others have written they have not released that which make wp.com actually work. But thats ok. Matt himself says SaaS is the way to go. Good thing about SaaS is that then you can modify GPL code as much as you want and never release anything. Its like eating the cake and having it too.

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    2. I don’t think GPLV2 vs. GPLV3 actually makes any difference in that regard. Neither requires you to release code modifications if the software you modified only runs on your web server.

      Affero GPL does require that, and that’s the one distinction between it and GPLV3: https://www.gnu.org/licenses/why-affero-gpl.en.html

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  9. Meanwhile, Wix stock price is up 10 bucks a share since this whole fiasco developed in 4th Q 2016 :) regardless of all this.

    Remember, Wix is not perfect, Wix is not WP, WP is not Wix. You have no more worries. Carry on now.

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