Update: This post is just about the legal aspects of forking. If you just want to talk about the morality of it, please go read The Morality of Forking.
You may have heard about this. WooThemes hired a couple of developers who used to work for Jigoshop, and forked one of their plugins.
Last week WooThemes announced the hiring of Mike Jolley and Jay Koster, as well as the forking of Jigoshop e-commerce plugin into the soon-to-be-released WooCommerce. Jolley and Foster previously worked for Jigowatt, a WordPress and Magento development shop, spending the last year working on the core of Jigoshop. 1
When you read it that way, it looks a little weird, doesn’t it? Shady even. After all, this is a case of one company cherry picking ideas from another, and then taking developers to continue working on their version.
Here, read this view of events:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and present a point of view that many people will disagree with.
It’s not theft.
Freedom is a complicated, annoying, thing, and sometimes having a freedom means you accept the consequences of that freedom. In the US, we have freedom of speech, which means we can bitch about our government if we want to. But that also means someone else, who has the polar opposite of your views, has the exact same right you do. And I will defend that person with my dying breath that they have that right, no matter how much I detest what they’re saying.
You have to keep that in perspective when you start talking about rights and legality. WooThemes had the legal right to do what they did. That doesn’t mean you don’t get to think that it was a dick move, and you may, but what it was, was 100% above-board. They were honest about it, and it was legal. The GPL affords us the freedom to make plugins, fork WordPress if we wanted, and do what we want, so long as we don’t restrict the freedoms even more.
We pay a heavy price for these freedoms, don’t get me wrong. All freedoms have a cost. We all pay for them. Thomas Paine’s famous quote reflects on the ‘free’ part of open-source in a strange way: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The core code of WordPress is free to us, and perhaps we devalue it for that price. Certainly the unrealistic expectations of many users is that this is a free product, and as such they deserve all things for free.
It’s possible that many people are dismissing this forking because hey, it’s a free world! WordPress is free, the plugin was free, the plugin was GPL, we’re all free to do what we want. But WordPress, when it hands us a dizzying array of freedoms in usage, is clearly giving us liberty that can be easily abused. It’s possible this is the case of abuse of that liberty. To judge that, we have to look at the whole picture.
Woo’s bid to buy out the Jigoshop project grossly undervalued the business and didn’t come close to covering our initial development costs, not forgetting the planning, time and effort both the Jigowatt team and community put into the project.
Woo then made to an offer to ‘collaborate’ which led to their decision to fork Jigoshop. What hasn’t been made public is that collaboration offer included conditions which would have given WooThemes full strategic control over the direction and development of the Jigoshop project in the future. 3
So clearly we can see that an offer of purchase, and collaboration, were made. They were felt to be not right. That was Jigoshop’s right and choice. Was it the correct choice? Only time will tell. That holds true of both Jigoshop and WooThemes. But up to this point, the whole deal is above-board, fair and just. And then WooThemes said ‘Well, they don’t want to work with us. That’s fair. We’re going to fork. And we’re going to take their core devs with us.’
This is still not theft.
See, WooThemes had no power to ‘take’ those devs unless Jigoshop undervalued them. That is Jigoshop esteemed their own developers too lightly. If the devs had been happy with their compensation, the direction of the plugin, and the company, they wouldn’t have left.
If you are a company with an open source project gaining momentum, your core developers absolutely must have a vested interest in your company. And not 1%. It has to be a good chunk of the pie. Enough that the developers feel your company is also their company. Then if another company comes along to hire them, the developer is much more likely to tell them, “Buy the company or take a hike.” 4
In the corporate world, I’ve signed a contract that says, should I leave my company, there are jobs I have legally agreed not to take for 12 months following my termination. My contract also prohibits me from doing certain types of freelance work. Not that long ago, a friend complained that it wasn’t ‘fair’ that we were restricted like that. I looked at her and pointed out “No one made us sign these contracts. We read them, and we chose to sign them.”
I’m no stranger to signing NDAs and other documents that restrict me from telling you things like who banks at the company I work for. I can tell you things that are publicly known, but not things that are not. That sounds fair, doesn’t it? I also can’t blog about my company with certain details, and on pain of being fired, I can’t talk to the press about anything. I don’t have to like it all the time, but it’s something I agreed to and that’s a choice I have to live with. Many of my friends who work in other ‘worlds’ can’t understand how a company can restrict my private life. I point out that I signed a contract that promised I wouldn’t, and I keep my promises. If I didn’t, would I be the person they liked and respected?
No one here violated a contract, lied, cheated, or stole. So why are people chapped and are they right to be so?
Right and wrong are tenuous. What’s right for you isn’t right for me, and that’s a part of why we have the law, which defines right for ‘everyone.’ Of course, we all know that even then, right is subjective. The law is imperfect, we know this, that’s why we have judges and jurys who listen to the situations that surround illegalities and make judgements based on not just the black and white of a situation, but the entire picture.
What WooThemes did was legal and fair. End of story. We cannot stand and shout for the freedoms of WordPress and GPL without defending their actions. That doesn’t mean we have to like them. If this makes you decide to never support WooThemes or Jigoshop again, that’s your choice too, and one I will defend till my dying day. I feel that I should point out here that some people who are decrying WooTheme’s move are the same people who were all up in arms for Chris Pearson’s Thesis theme to abide by the GPL.
We live by the GPL sword, and we’ll die by that sword for as long as we stay GPL. The community clearly wants to be GPL, or we’d not have gone after Thesis with such animosity. That means we have to accept that sometimes what’s right isn’t what we would do. But then again, no one’s making you use the forked plugin.
Someone’s bound to bring up the fact that even Matt doesn’t like forking. That would be incorrect. WordPress is a fork of B2. Matt’s problem with forking is pretty easy to understand:
Forking is not usually ideal because it fragments the market for users
Notice how Matt doesn’t say he doesn’t like it, but that it’s not ideal? That does rather apply to this situation. By forking a plugin, you make two versions of it. Were we not all recently delighted when the TimThumb fork (WordThumb) merged with Tim to fix the problems? Were we not ecstatic when WPMU merged with WordPress to make MultiSite? Multiple plugins that do the same thing mean multiple places to have to patch.
And yet. There are already a handful of similar plugins out there. Having competition drives people to make better products and prevents us from resting on our laurels. It’s great you made the best plugin ever, but now what? It’s true this fork may be damaging to the community, and it’s true that it may have caused hurt feelings. But what matters more is where are Jigishop and WooThemes going next? How will their plugins make themselves notably different?
In the end, if you don’t like it, vote with your feet, but you owe it to yourself to defend everyone’s freedom with the same ferocity you defend your own. Even the people you hate.