Wix and WordPress Explainer

When you breach the terms of the GPL, the best plan is to put things right straight away, not misdirect away from the problem and condescend to the authors.

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Many were surprised when one of the pioneers of the open web accused a competitor of theft1. Matt Mullenweg complained on October 28 that the new mobile app Wix has released uses a big chunk of code from WordPress, namely the WordPress Mobile Editor Component. Matt is the original creator of WordPress and now CEO of the company successfully monetising it, Automattic, Inc.

That’s not inherently a problem — the code is open source free software, licensed under the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2) — and anyone is free to do exactly that. But open source code is still subject to copyright and controlled by its author(s). They may have chosen to grant you a broad license to exploit their copyright and to use, improve and share their code any way you want. But you still have to comply with the terms of the license.

That’s the problem here. Mullenweg is OK with Wix using the community’s code, but alleges they have failed to comply with the terms of the license. In conclusion he says:

Release your app under the GPL, and put the source code for your app up on GitHub so that we can all build on it, improve it, and learn from it.

Mullenweg says this not because he is petty and jealous but because that is the community norm under which the original code for the WordPress Mobile Editor component was developed. Communities that use the GPL expect their members to “cause any work that you distribute or publish, that in whole or in part contains or is derived from the Program or any part thereof, to be licensed as a whole at no charge to all third parties under the terms of [the GPL].” That creates a level competitive playing field for everyone as well as growing the pool of programming know-how. If you don’t want to behave in that way, don’t join the community by using its code.

Note that to comply with the license, the complete source code corresponding to the derived software has to be made available, not just the part you repurposed. So when Avishai Abrahami (Wix’s CEO) responded that “Yes, we did use the WordPress open source library for a minor part of the application (that is the concept of open source right?)” and claimed that “everything we improved there or modified, we submitted back as open source,” he seriously missed the point. To have a valid copyright license, Wix doesn’t just have to publish the code they changed; they also have to publish whatever other source code is needed to make the mobile app, maybe the whole of the “more than 3 million lines of code in the Wix application, notably the hotels/blogs/chat/eCommerce/scheduling/booking.”

It doesn’t help to try to misdirect the reader. Mullenweg did not allege that Wix “have been taking from the open source community without giving back” so for Abrahami to erect and then demolish that strawman in his response is an unhelpful device.

Neither does it help to say the code used is “a minor part” of the application or (as lead engineer Tal Kol went on to do) claim the code is trivial. Neither does it matter that the WordPress developers helped Tal and even gave him a t-shirt as well as inviting him to use the open source code. If anything, it makes things worse as they welcomed Wix into their community in person and then saw their trust betrayed by using their code in breach of its license hidden inside a proprietary application.

The condescension is especially regrettable since Mullenweg’s response is actually very generous. Were he to litigate, abuse of copyright is serious and attracts huge fines and prison sentences, thanks to the efforts of the movie and recording industries to weaponise copyright law. Even a simple complaint to the Apple Store could remove Wix instantly for breach of copyright.

He’s threatening neither. The GPLv2 has an automatic termination of copyright in case of a breach; it says “Any attempt otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License.”  But by inviting the company to post the full source code corresponding to the Wix app under the GPL on Github, Mullenweg has offered to restore the license to Wix.

This is not some marginal, arguable interpretation of the GPL; it’s a direct application of its core purpose. When you use any software component in your larger work, be it from proprietary or open source origins, you need to respect the license. Assuming Abrahami and Kol are sincere in their declared embrace of open source and there are no material undisclosed facts, it would seem smart to take Matt up on this offer rather than keep digging.

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1 By the way Matt, copyright violation is not theft!

10 thoughts on “Wix and WordPress Explainer

  1. These kinds of disputes are what justifiably scare companies away from having anything to do with any open source under any license. It’s bad for all of us to have this kind of open argument – and the way you have put this doesn’t help because you make it sound like Matt actually wants to destroy Wix – the end result of them being forced to disclose every line of code of every application, component, service, etc that touches the GPL software

    • Sorry Ted, I disagree in this case. Wix was careless, using a GPLed library as a shortcut to market for a proprietary app. Blaming WordPress for being upset is perverse. This is not some questionable edge-case; it’s direct, core use of licensed code without regard for the license. Developers who flout the licenses for the components they use get called on it, whether the components in question are proprietary or open source.

      • It seems to me like you can both be right.

        These kinds of disputes scare companies *and* Wix was careless.

        WordPress isn’t to blame for the error *and* Mullenweg is using an opportunity to embarrass a competitor.

        I think the article could be less scary by telling Wix (and other companies considering Open Source) there is another way out of this – apologise, remove the infringing GPLed code, and either write their own replacement, or find some Open Source code with a license that is more compatible with Wix’s business model.

    • These are the conditions of the GPL.

      And those are the conditions that Matt and WordPress WANTED for their code, when they did the work and shared it with the world.

      Businesses that don’t want to participate in that, are free not to. What they aren’t free to do is to abuse that contract and that community by violating the terms under which the community made the source available to them. This is why the GPL was invented. To explain this principle to people.

      Wix should have read it. And should have understood it.

      Frankly, businesses who are “scared away” by the prospect of being obliged to do the right thing don’t deserve to be in business in the first place.

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  4. Easily solved! If the code is “trivial”, they can just write a cleanroom replacement for it and be done. It’s not like open-source projects haven’t had to do this to avoid proprietary components.

    If they don’t want to, then that “trivial” claim is a little suspect. 🙂

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