Like a million other posts, I’m starting this with a warning: I Am Not A Lawyer. Sure, my mom is, but that qualifies me for a cup of coffee, if I have the cash. Personally, I support open-data and open-code because I think it makes things better, but there are a lot of weird issues when you try and pair up software licenses, explain what ‘freedom’ means, and where it’s applicable. For the record, I am not getting into the ‘is a plugin/theme derivative software or not’ debate. I will wiggle my toe and point out it is a point of contention.
Why are WordPress and Drupal GPL anyway?
The people who built WordPress took an existing app (b2) and forked it. Forking happens when developers take a legally acquired copy of some code and make a new program out of it. Of the myriad caveats in forking, you have to remember that the fork must be a legal copy of the code. In order to create WordPress, Matt et al. were legally obligated to make WordPress GPL. No one argues that. The only way to change a license from GPL is to get everyone who has ever committed any code to the project to agree to this, and you know, that’s like saying you’re going to get everyone in your house to agree to what pizza to order.
WordPress and Drupal is GPL because it must be. There is no other option.
So why is this a problem?
GPL poses a problem because of interpretations of what ‘derivative works’ are. It’s very clear cut that if you take or use WordPress’ or Drupal’s code, you are taking code built on GPL, which means you must keep your code GPL. The definition of ‘code’ is a bit squidgy. A generally accepted rule of thumb is that if your code can exist, 100%, without WordPress or Drupal’s support, then it’s not a derivative. By their very nature, plugins and modules are seen as derivative. Both Drupal and WordPress have long since stated that this is, indeed, the case.
Themes, modules and plugins are GPL because they must be. There is no other option.
Except there is. Only the code that relies on the GPL code have to be GPL. Your theme’s CSS and your images actually can be non-GPL (though WordPress won’t host you on their site if you don’t). Also, if you have code that lives on your own server, and people use the plugin to help the app talk to that code, only the code that sits on WordPress or Drupal has to be GPL. Your server’s code? No problem, it can be as proprietary as you want! Akismet, a product made by Automattic (who ‘makes’ WordPress, in a really broad interpretation) works like this. So does Google Analytics (most certainly not owned by WordPress), and there are many plugins to integrate WordPress and Google. This is generally done by APIs (aka Application programing interfaces), and are totally kosher to be as proprietary as you want.
Themes, modules and plugins are GPL where they need to be, and proprietary (if you want) where they don’t.
So what is GPL protecting?
As we often carol, the GPL is about freedom. And “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” Freedom is a tetchy subject, misunderstood by most of us. For example, freedom of speech does not mean you get to run around saying what you want wherever you want. Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. This is pretty much the opposite of what you’re used to with the iOS, Microsoft and Adobe. Free software may still charge you, but once you buy the software, you can do what you want with it. Your freedom, as a user, is protected.
WordPress’s adherence to GPL is for the user, not the developer.
What’s so free about this anyway?
The term ‘free’ is just a bad one to use in general. Remember, freedom of speech, as it’s so often used in inaccurate Internet debates, does not mean you can say whatever you want. ‘Free speech’ means ‘You have the right to say what you want, but I have the right to kick you out of MY house if I don’t like it.’ So what are these GPL freedoms anyway? In the GPL license you have the four freedoms: (1) to run the software, (2) to have the source code, (3) to distribute the software, (4) to distribute your modifications to the software. Really they should be ‘rights’ and not ‘freedoms’ if you want nit-pick, and I tend to think of the freedom of source code to be similar to data freedom. The freedoms of open-whatever are for the people who use the whatever, not those who come up with it.
Software freedoms are for the user to become the developer.
So if GPL is for the users, what protects the developer?
Not much, and this is where people get pissed off. If anyone can buy my software and give it away for free (or pay), why would I even consider releasing something GPL? The question, as Otto puts it, really should be ‘What exactly are you selling in the first place?’ What are we selling when we sell software? I work on software for a living, and I never sell my code. I’m hired to write it, certainly, and I do (not as often as I’d like). Most of what I do is design. It’s part math, and part art. My contract doesn’t allow me to keep ownership of my art, which sucks, but if I was a painter, I’d sell the painting and lose the ownership anyway, so what’s the difference? That painting can get sold and resold millions of times for billions of dollars. And most artists die starving.
Software Freedom doesn’t stop people from being dicks (though they should).
So what good is the GPL to the developer trying to make a buck?
It’s not. But that’s not the point. GPL isn’t about the guy who wrote the code, it’s about the guy who gets the code (again, legally) and says “You know, this is great, but it should make milkshakes too!” and writes that. GPL is all about the guy who uses the code and the next guy who takes the code and improves on it. If you have an open community where everyone has the privilege and right to use, view, share and edit the code, then you have the ability to let your code grow organically. If you want to watch some staid, tie-wearing, Dilbert PHB lose his mind, try and explain the shenanigans of Open Source development. “Develop at the pace of ingenuity” versus “Develop at the pace of your whining users.”
Software Freedom isn’t about making money, it’s about making the next thing.
Why would I want to use GPL?
If you use WordPress, you use it because you have to. I prefer the Apache licenses, myself, but the purpose of using any software freedom license is, at it’s Communist best, a way to make software all around the world better for everyone. You stop people from reinventing the wheel if you show them how to make the axle in the first place! Did you know that Ford and Toyota independently came up with a way to make your brakes charge your hybrid battery? They latter opened up and shared their tech with each other, only to find out how similar they already were! Just imagine how much faster we could have had new technology if they’d collaborated earlier on? With an open-source/free license, my code is there for anyone to say “You know, this would work better…” And they have! And I’ve made my code better thanks to them.
I use ‘free software’ open source licensing on my software to make my software better.