June 20, 2007

GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

Author: Tina Gasperson

Joomla! project leader Louis Landry and his colleagues want to protect the project they love. That's why, after two years of allowing proprietary plugins for the open source CMS, the group has decided to ask third-party developers for voluntary compliance with the terms of the GNU General Public License, under which Joomla! is licensed. Those developers are complaining that it's unfair for Joomla! to reverse its position after "a bunch of companies spent millions," according to one developer employed by a company that markets the proprietary extensions. Landry says he and the Joomla! team were wrong to have allowed the exceptions, and a return to compliance is essential in order to legally protect the open nature of Joomla!.

Joomla! was born in 2005 as a fork from the Mambo CMS. The entire core development team, as well as many of the third-party developers, left the Mambo community because they believed that Miro, the corporation behind Mambo, was planning to close the code on the project. The developers formed Open Source Matters (OSM), a
nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of supporting and protecting
Joomla!. OSM secured the services of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) to help it navigate the muddy waters of running a free software project, especially one as wary of legal claims from its previous parent company as Joomla!.

"They asked us to help them manage the split," says James Vasile, counsel for SFLC. "We did that, making sure all the legal bases were covered. There were some rumblings about the Mambo split [possibly] not working, and Mambo having legal claims on the code. We settled all that for them."

In addition to the code base, one of the things the Joomla! core development team brought with it from Mambo was a tolerance for non-GPL compliant extensions. Many third-party developers believe that tolerance is part of what makes Joomla! so popular. In an open letter to the Joomla! core team, the Joomla Commercial Developer's Alliance (JCDA), wrote, "It is widely agreed among the Joomla! community that the vast number of extensions that are available for Joomla! has helped to establish Joomla! as a winning formula across the internet as a stable, functional and feature filled platform to build websites upon."

It seemed that Joomla! had created a thriving economy for developers, arguably because its tolerance for proprietary extensions attracted entrepreneurs who discovered an audience hungry for inexpensive but useful add-ons. Further solidifying the third-party developers' position that they were within their rights to develop non-GPL addons, Landry and others explicitly stated in Joomla! forums that the decision about whether to allow proprietary extensions was up to the copyright holder. In a June 2006 topic entitled "1.5 licence change clarification," Landry wrote that the Joomla! license in version 1.5 would "make sure that commercial third-party developers that use Joomla! as a platform can do so without fear of having to release GPL."

This April, a discussion at the Joomla! forums focused on the growing concern among the core developers that the extensions and templates upon which so many successful businesses had been built were violating Joomla!'s GPL license. "It was something that had been in the back of our minds," Landry says. "We were uncertain about our legal stance, and it concerned many of us." Landry says the team couldn't help but notice that none of the other open source CMS projects allowed third-party developers to market proprietary extensions. As the Joomla! project continued to move toward the 1.5 release, team members decided to ask Vasile whether the GPL really did allow non-free add-ons.

"Every couple of months they try to improve the process a bit," Vasile says. "One of the things we talked about was increasing the rate of GPL compliance in their community." He says the Joomla! core team came to realize they had a "GPL problem" but weren't sure what to do about it. "I laid out their range of options and they realized that they needed to move" in the direction of a voluntary compliance effort. "Along the way, they were hoping to teach people about what it takes to comply." Vasile says the Joomla! core developers came to the project with a less than full understanding of the GPL, but "at this point, the team understands quite well. I've tried to give them guidance, but most have done their own research."

Some of the third-party developers marketing the extensions are angry because they believe Joomla! is trying to force them to release their source code under the GPL. "They said their announcement was the beginning of the discussion," says Merav Knafo, the owner of iJoomla, a development company that sells proprietary extensions to Joomla!. "But to us, it sounded like the end of the discussion." Knafo maintains that there was a written rider allowing the non-GPL extensions attached to the Joomla! license and published at the Web site, but that the core team recently removed it without telling anyone. "They're making us do something illegal now without even knowing about it. The way for them to fix it would be to put the rider back."

Vasile says no version of Joomla! "has ever gone out with a rider."

Landry wants developers to understand that the reason Joomla! wants to move closer to the GPL is to protect the project. "If we are condoning violations, we're weaker in a legal sense. If someone challenged our license down the road, if we've systematically been condoning violations, they could say, 'What's different now?'" For instance, he says, there have been several occasions when other parties have simply lifted Joomla! code, rebranded it, and released it as a commercial product. "That's clearly not acceptable," Landry says. "But the more we condone, the more these people have the ability to argue that we're not enforcing the license anyway."

Regardless, Knafo is vehemently against the idea of re-licensing her extensions. "We will never release our software as GPL, never!" She says the core team doesn't understand what it is asking of the third-party developers. "The Joomla! core developers are very young. They don't have a lot of real life experience. They don't understand how things work in the real world. If you don't compensate people in the real world, they're not going to do it."

Knafo says she and other third-party developers are looking at all their options. "There are many thoughts about creating a fork that's friendly to commercial developers," she says. "Then there will be Joomla!, with lots of free extensions but no commercial ones, and a fork that has support for commercial extensions. This could be really bad for Joomla!. If they leave us no choice, we will do that. We have already put so much effort into this, and we want to keep doing business."

Landry says he understands that the developers are worried by the impending changes, and he sympathizes. "That's one of the reasons why we said this is going to be a long and slow road. We're not overnight saying you have to completely change. We're not coming after [them]." He laments what he says is the extreme reaction Joomla! has received from the third-party developers. "A lot of these people are our friends. It's been really shocking to see some of the really nasty language and the rough communications come out of some of them. To be honest, I'm not really clear on why they feel so threatened. It disturbs me that people all of a sudden feel like we're in an attacking posture. One of the things I have reiterated is that we are completely a peaceful project. We're not going after anybody -- we're asking nicely for voluntary compliance so that all of us can protect the project we all know and love. I can't make it any more clear than that."


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