Strong opinions, weakly held

On the GPL

Daniel Jalkut posts on the disadvantages of the GPL. He argues that the viral nature of the GPL is off-putting to some developers who may otherwise contribute to a project that is licensed under a BSD-like license. That’s completely true. But it’s also beside the point. The GPL is explicitly and intentionally political. The goal is to force more software into the open source world.

The political nature of the license is certainly going to alienate some people, but any true advocate of the GPL will be completely OK with that. Knowingly choosing the GPL means you’re willing to take the “bad” with the good. The problem Jalkut describes has more to do with people who mistakenly equate “open source” with “GPL”.

Developers need to study the licenses before they choose one to release their software under. I’m not sure the GPL is the ideal license for WordPress, but clearly it hasn’t hindered its success. Complaining about the GPL’s encumbrances is sort of like complaining about the fact that when you buy Sierra Club merchandise, part of the money funds environmental causes. That’s the whole point.


  1. WordPress didn’t get to pick a license, it is a fork of another piece of software called B2, which was licensed GPL. That required that WordPress to be licensed under the GPL.

  2. I think the big issue here is the one with WP theme developers. Sure, the WP folks are way into GPL (wordpress is itself a fork of the original software), but the people 2nd and 3rd degree away from it building plugins and theme engines for pay-only are flipping out, and I’d say rightly so.

    If you asked me yesterday if a theme developer should legally be forced to release $100 themes freely, I’d say no way, but after reading that post it certainly looks like they should and it seems like an unintended consequence of the GPL’s legal code.

    I’d imagine there are quite a few sites, designers, and coders making a shitload of money on wordpress themes. It seems everyone beyond the basic single person personal blog is using some flavor of $10-$100 theme on most blogs I come across in random web surfing these days. It seems like a real cottage industry, and if they are forced to release their code, layouts, and images, I imagine the market will dry up overnight.

  3. Thank you for pointing this out. I wanted to say the same thing. The history of Unix, RMS, and the GPL should be required reading for would-be software pundits.

  4. You’re right. I didn’t simmer on my thoughts enough until after writing the post, and realizing that a subconscious subtext in my mind was that I was trying to convince people who are on the fence, not to choose GPL. Obviously, people for whom the GPL represents a great moral or political movement would not be on the fence.

    Thanks for reading and linking to the article, Daniel

  5. If you asked me yesterday if a theme developer should legally be forced to release $100 themes freely, I’d say no way, but after reading that post it certainly looks like they should and it seems like an unintended consequence of the GPL’s legal code.

    Actually it’s an intended consequence.

  6. I do wonder if, at this point, forking B2 was a regrettable decision for WordPress. Regardless, I’d say that GPL advocates would regard it as a huge victory. They managed to “infect” a whole big chunk of the blogging software industry when Matt made the decision to build on top of a relatively simple piece of GPL-licensed software.

  7. The GPL says you have to provide the code at a reasonable cost (for example media cost) when it is asked for. Nothing, however, stops the person who asked for it from releasing it for free once obtained. You can do GPL software, charge money for it, and only release code to those who want it though. That being said, I’m still a BSD advocate personally.

  8. One of the reasons WordPress was originally successful was because of its open source license. Movable Type was not open source and had alienated some in its community with the introduction of a new licensing plan, and some of its influential bloggers publicly embraced WordPress as the open alternative that couldn’t be taken away from them later.

    So I don’t see how WordPress could regret the decision to release under the GPL. It might not have been successful without it.

  9. Matt Haughey & Rafe –

    You are confusing licensing terms with price. Matt isn’t saying that theme and plugin developers are required to give their code away for free, he’s saying that they have to provide the code (when distributing it) under GPL (or compatible) terms.

  10. Actually I’m not. Licensing code under the GPL and selling stuff are obviously not mutually incompatible. (Just ask MySQL or Red Hat.) Indeed, I read on the WordPress site today that the only components of a theme that must be released under the GPL are the parts written in PHP. The markup, images, CSS, and JavaScript can all be released under a commercial license. So this really isn’t a big deal for the pros who sell WP themes.

  11. Thomas Brownback

    July 4, 2009 at 3:15 am

    One of the arcane oddities I’d like to hear about the Oracle/Sun thing is the state of Btrfs and ZFS. Btrfs is licensed under the GPL and was designed by Oracle. ZFS was designed by Sun, and is licensed under the CDDL, which is derived from the MPL. Those two licenses are incompatible, such that code from the two projects can never be legally linked.

    Does this mean one project will be walled off, or both have to die, or what?

    Actually, maybe both projects have gone independent by now, I’m not really sure. But you can imagine how this merger combined with those license choices could easily lead to some odd value-destroying effects. Not simply because one license is good or another is bad, but simply because of the difficulty in crafting public licenses that play nice together, or that can adapt to changing circumstances.

  12. To Thomas’s question, the owner of the copyright to the code can release the same code under a different license. If Oracle wanted to merge the projects, they could, eg, release all or some subset of the ZFS code under GPL and then there’s no problem. If someone else wanted to fork the last CDDL version of ZFS, they could do so under the same terms they could have the previous day. And tomorrow, Richard Stallman could make his own fork of the GPLed ZFS for GNU.

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