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:
|Joomla needs commercial extensions in order to survive and gain acceptance from business customers.
|I can’t make money if my extension is GPL.
|Policy makers in the Joomla project are out-of-touch idiots and something should be done!
|Someone will fork my code and release a better version three weeks later.
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.