I have been keeping my blog posts here relatively neutral, encouraging people to express an opinion, but I have had several people ask me for my take on all this, and what I think the consequences will be. So here goesÂ…
So what we talking about?
At issue are third party Joomla extensions and some modern templates. There are many of them that are sold on a per domain license. You probably have bought and used one on your Joomla website.
Since its creation in 2005, Joomla has always encouraged these 3rd party developers. There was a spot on the extensions site for them, there were initially FAQ’s that they say non-GPL extensions were ok, www.joomla.org even used proprietary extensions on its own sites.
License, GPL, proprietary, wha?
OK, the license most commonly linked to open source software like Joomla is the GPL. I am not going to describe what it means because of my next point; you stand a 50% chance of disagreeing with me 🙂
It’s really interesting because people’s world views and philosophies drive their interpretation of it. The fact of the matter it’s been hardly ever tested in court, so while everyone tends to say “that’s legal, that’s not”, they are just relying on the opinion of their lawyers, and a lawyer will always have the opinion you want him to, that’s why you are paying himÂ…
Catching a cold, the viral nature of the GPL.
Broadly speaking, if you create a derivative bit of code from something that is GPL, then it too becomes GPL when you distribute it. You can’t have proprietary code.
No, not really, this is where people’s interpretations come in. You could image a bell curve of people’s opinion about this. At one end you have the Freedom Software Foundation who (imho) believes that if you breathe on another bit of code, it becomes GPL. At the other end you have, I don’t know, Microsoft, who probably thinks that a derivative would have to be very very tightly tied into the GPL code to have caught the license.
Interesting Linus Torvalds has always disagreed with the FSF’s interpretation of the license. We’ll come back to that in a moment. In 2005 and 2006 Joomla, as mentioned above had a more “Linus-like” view of the viral nature of the GPL.
The implications of catching a GPL cold
In the context of Joomla, this comes down to business models.
To a man (and a few women) Joomla 3rd party commercial developers have the simple business of you pay a domain license for the extension. You can’t do that with GPL extensions because the GPL gives the right to redistribute. They all have this model for a couple of reasons:
- because the Joomla project said it was OK in 2005 and 2006.
- because it’s the easiest to set up, and most profitable for the one-man shops that characterize Joomla.
A GPL business model would seek to get its revenue from training, support, updates etc. Since revenue can’t come from the code, it has to come from elsewhere.
-So, if you have a “left-leaning” view of the GPL, you make money off services.
-If you have a “right-leaning” view, you make money off products.
Take that horse for a ride(r)
In 2005 the core team at the time asked James Vasile, FSF lawyer and OSM board member (currently advising the core team on this matter) to help them write a rider for Joomla. The point of the rider was to grant an exception to extension developers so they could release their own software however they wanted, clearing up any legal ambiguity that might cause problems. It was added to the copyright in May, 2006.
In April 2007, the rider was removed from the copyright, and sparked a raging debate about whether extensions can be GPL. Its removal was the first step in a shift in Joomla’s attitude towards non-GPL extensions, the final result was a statement that all extensions must be GPL to be legal.
To go back to our bell curve, I would say their shift looked something like this:
The Implications of Joomla’s New Interpretation
OK, so in 2005 and 2006, Joomla had a viewpoint that favored non-GPL extensions. Up till now I hope I have been relatively unbiased. Here would be my first “opinion”:
Joomla created an ecosystem where commercial and private interests lived alongside open source purists. That broad community reach allowed Joomla to go places other FOSS software couldn’t, and the corporate sector is a place where Joomla still thrives to this day. It led to the flourishing of hundreds of commercial/proprietary extensions where end users could build an amazingly sophisticated site for a couple of hundred bucks.
This shift in policy seems to have had the effect of getting lots of 3rd party developers (3PD’s) mad as bees. An organization has already been formed with close to 100 members, the Commercial Joomla Developers Alliance. As far as can be discerned, the most common frustration is that Joomla has changed the rules of the game at half time. These 3PD’s spent the last 18 months building a business, and a certain extent, life, on the policy that Joomla was communicating. Now they will have to change how they do business to survive.
OK, here goes for my second opinion of what will happen.
- People will argue that the rider was or wasn’t legal
- People will argue that extensions are or are not derivatives
- People will argue that this or that business model will work
There isn’t much point; again, probably 50% of us will disagree! However, I think I can be more certain of this:
- Joomla has alienated its commercial/proprietary 3PD community
- Many 3PD will be unable or unwilling to make the changes to their business model to comply with Joomla’s wishes.
- Some fraction of that will take some sort of action, ranging from forks, competing sites, litigation, stopping development for 1.5 or just walking away.
The core team has expressed that they think that this fraction will be small. Small enough that GPL compliant business models will rush to fill the void.
I am not sure that is the case. A non-GPL business model is easy to set up, that’s why there were so many. We are already seeing just hours after Joomla’s new policy statement 3PD’s taking various types of action.
It’s been claimed numerous times on the thread that it’s possible to sell a GPL component and/or charge a membership for access to it. While technically true, it doesn’t get you anywhere. Unfortunately human nature is not like that. In a very short period of time we’ll be seeing all these GPL extensions available for free on various sites. You can’t add enough value (updates, support and documentation) to compete with free. That’s not a viable business model.
But what about the most important thing here, the community of end users?
Perhaps the biggest problem in all this is what will be the reaction of the end user? Its difficult to judge reading the GPL discussion thread. In forums people seem to think that if they shout their view loud enough it will become true. The loud voices drown out the silent majority.
WarningÂ… more opinions approaching.
Ironically, for an organization that chose an African translation of “All together” as its name (Joomla), I don’t think the community of end users was really asked, or considered in all this. The core team has taken action that they strongly believe was in the best interest of the project. I am not sure it was in the best interest of end users. I have been contacted by many that have expressed this kind of sentiment.
(click to read some end user opinions)Â
The end users are in the middle of that bell curve, I would think most of them pretty ambivalent to the GPL’s intricacies.
Moving forward, have the trenches been dug too deep?
There are always two sides to an issue. It’s a little high minded to think that you are always “right”. The world is not like that.
If Joomla wants to continue to grow and enjoy the success it has had in the last 18 months, it needs to find a compromise with the 3PD community. Whether it is currently comfortable with it philosophically or not, that community did contribute to the uptake and success of the CMS.
To reach a compromise you need to accept you can’t have an inflexible absolute position. Both groups need to have an honest dialog about their needs and be willing to move towards a middle ground.
Unfortunately, I can’t see this happening. I think we are going to see months of bitter wrangling that regardless of the outcome, which will do nothing but discourage end users and impair the projects growth.
This shouldn’t be about encryption
Developers encrypt for many reasons, primarily piracy. There are more ways to skin the open source cat like code escrow. Besides, the marketplace will decide that one, most end users don’t like encryption.
This shouldn’t be about contributing to the project
A small fraction of 3PD don’t contribute much back to the project; most do. If Joomla wants to have more involvement, they should be using more carrot and less stick.