Back in June of 2007, the Joomla project generated a community firestorm by announcing that, based on legal opinion, it felt that all Joomla extensions were required to be released under the GPL and that it would start to encourage third party developers to comply with that interpretation.

Detractors tried to paint this as some sort of policy decision. Somehow they never quite grasped what was being said, so I think it bears being repeated. Open Source Matters, Inc. (OSM), the non-profit charged with protecting the interests of the project, sought and obtained an opinion from legal experts well qualified in this area. Their opinion was specific, clear, and — this is critically important — while not based on precedent set by court decision, was based on several lawsuits that were settled just before going to court.

This needs some elaboration to make it as clear as possible: businesses who thought that this interpretation of the GPL was wrong, and who distributed proprietary attachments to GPL products, backed down when faced with going to trial. In my opinion, the only reason why a commercial enterprise would elect to settle a case of this nature just before going to trial is because they knew that they were likely to lose. When several suits get settled this way, all in favour of the GPL, they begin to carry significant legal weight.

So OSM had two choices: communicate the requirement that extensions be GPL or adopt another license. Considering that Joomla formed as a direct result of the actions individuals who believed in the GPL, there was really only one alternative.

Free Software — as defined by the GPL — may embrace open source, but it is not the same as open source. It is designed to give users rights and freedoms that go well beyond access to the code. For developers the interpretation is simple: get on board or use code that has a different license, period.

At the time of the GPL announcement, I had decided that Joomla was the best CMS for my web development business. I had just begun to get involved with the project, and had at best contributed a patch or two. As a small business, source code is our biggest asset and I will admit I had some concerns about giving up the ability to protect that asset. But at the same time I am not so hypocritical that I think somehow we have the right to protect our code, while using hundreds of thousands of lines of code written by others without compensation.

A few days ago, the project announced that the Joomla Extensions Directory was only going to list extensions released under the GPL (JED to be GPL Only by July 2009). Predictably, this has created another round of controversy.

The difference here is that while the original position was based on legal opinion, this decision is more one of policy. The project is choosing to not promote extensions that violate the terms of the GPL.

When the first announcement was made, my Joomla involvement had just begun. Now, I’m one of the more active members of the project and part of the Development Team. While not part of the Core Team or OSM Board, which are the bodies responsible for the governance of the project, I have made some significant contributions. Every time someone downloads and installs Joomla, they benefit in some small part from my work.

It is in this context that I’m going to respond to several reactions to the JED announcement:

Reaction Response
Joomla needs commercial extensions in order to survive and gain acceptance from business customers.
  1. Similar dire claims of the project’s demise were made when the GPL compliance announcement was made. Not only have they not come true, Joomla is more active and vibrant now than it has ever been, so FUD to that.
  2. The vast majority of extensions are already GPL, including some of the best extensions for 1.5.
  3. I successfully use the argument that the GPL protects a business from the failure of a small development shop without introducing new risks. Any business that backs away from GPL software as a user simply hasn’t been sold to properly.
I can’t make money if my extension is GPL.
  • Leaving aside the fact that there are many companies that disprove this, anyone making this argument is saying that they can’t make money without ripping me off! Start paying me and others for our contribution to your success and then I might be slightly sympathetic.
  • Maybe we need an alternative licensing model. Pay OSM US$50,000 to $100,000 for a Non-GPL Joomla site license and feel free to install as many commercial extensions as you like. Don’t install one single third party GPL extension without paying them, though!
  • Find an extensible commercial CMS and go write proprietary code for it. If your business is capable of paying for the development licenses and the training and certification courses you’ll need to get started, then you might in fact have a viable proprietary software company. If not, stop whining.
  • If you’re that great, you don’t need Joomla. Go write your own CMS.
Policy makers in the Joomla project are out-of-touch idiots and something should be done!
  • Fork it. Go on, I dare you. Everybody who is currently working on the code base understands and supports the GPL. The people who didn’t left shortly after the 2007 announcement. If you like the code, but don’t like the policies, go do it your way.
  • Personally, I think people who think they can get fair value for their work without also giving the project similar value (say, based on revenue per line of code) have ethical problems. So not only do you want to rip off the users who buy your extensions by denying them their legal rights under the GPL, but you want the Joomla project to help you do that. Good luck.
  • The site www.extensionprofessionals.com (running Joomla 1.0 (snicker) way to innovate, guys) offers proprietary extensions. This site is sponsored by the “Joint Commercial Developers Association” (jcd-a.org), comprised mostly of people who found Joomla’s GPL interpretation unacceptable. In a year or two, we’ll be able to measure the success of this extension site by comparing it with the JED. Should be good for a laugh or two. Take a look at the frantic activity on jcd-a.org for a peek at the future. The word joint comes to mind, but not in the context of a collective effort.
Someone will fork my code and release a better version three weeks later.
  • If your business model is predicated on code that’s so weak that someone can make significant improvements on it in three weeks, and that someone isn’t you, then maybe you should consider either a different business model or another career.
  • Let’s make it very clear: the GPL makes it difficult to earn a living by flaunting mediocre code without some other kind of value add. If you can’t come up with a proposition to add value, consider another business. Really. It’s just not going to work.

From my viewpoint, a great part of Joomla’s success has been as a direct result of its commitment to empower the end user via the GPL. Moreover, the principles of the GPL have attracted much of the talent that the project currently has. I see companies that don’t embrace these values but who continue to earn a living thanks to the project as nothing more than parasites. I’m certain that once the leeches have been pried from the JED, it will grow more quickly and become more vibrant than ever before. Time will tell.