September 17, 2004

Is the Mambo project using stolen code?

Author: Jem Matzan

Updated: 9/18/04 9:31AM EST On Wednesday a man named Brian Connolly posted an open letter to users of the Mambo content management system, threatening them with civil and criminal action if they continue to use Mambo. He claims that the Mambo project contains proprietary, copyrighted code that belongs to him and is currently in use in his customized Furthermore CMS. Is this the little brother of the SCO Group debacle, or a legitimate copyright infringement claim?

The wording at the beginning of the open letter is pretty harsh:

If you are presently using the software application "Mambo OS" in any release post October 3, 2003, you and your organization are potentially exposed to CIVIL LITIGATION and possibly CRIMINAL PROSECUTION.

The message goes on to say that the code in question comprises the lead story block -- a block being a dynamically generated section of a Web page that has code separate from the main page. Content management systems use blocks to create and extend dynamic, database-driven Web sites. Another portion of code was illegally donated from Furthermore that allows easier administration of the front page, Connolly says.

No money to go after major litigation

"This is much worse than SCO," Connelly told NewsForge today. "But I don't have millions of dollars to go out and sue everyone. SCO and IBM are the big guys, but down here in the trenches is where it's happening and we don't have a forum to resolve this kind of problem. The Mambo people have been uncooperative."

The problem doesn't really start with Mambo, though, or its parent company, Australia-based Miro International. The trouble started with a man named Emir Sakic, who was contracted by Connolly to make some proprietary modules for and modifications to Mambo that made it look like a newspaper portal, as shown on the Furthermore home page. Eventually it got so that Mambo and Furthermore had divergent code bases that made them almost into different programs. Connolly says that Sakic then modified the Mambo code so that it would use Furthermore's proprietary modules and illegally gave the project one of Furthermore's blocks -- the lead story block -- and modified the back end. Mambo was given functionality from Furthermore that it did not have before.

Sakic contacted Connolly by email and asked him after the fact if he could put this code under the GPL. Connolly, of course, told NewsForge he said no, but it was too late.

Modifying, hosting, monitoring, and administrating open-source and proprietary CMS software is by no means an illegitimate or unethical practice -- this is what Connolly does, and he's far from being the pioneer in this industry. Since the users or customers are essentially paying a company like Connolly's to custom-design a Web site for them, the issue of licensing doesn't come up -- customers are not being given software and they are not purchasing software, they are purchasing a service which is delivered dynamically through software and software development.

Connolly is upset that code he developed to sell services has been misappropriated. According to Connolly, Sakic admitted clearly in his email to Connolly that he'd donated this code to Mambo, but at that point the damage had been done. Upset, Connolly called the Open Source Software Institute to seek assistance with the matter.

Mambo community has been 'discussing' this for a while

Meanwhile the Mambo community had a discussion on the matter (this is one of several threads) with a general irreverence toward Connolly and his claims of copyright infringement, and the usual flippant remarks and misguided legal analysis that can be found on nearly any blog or forum that discusses such matters. The forum posts in the above-referenced thread paint an entirely different picture than what Connolly himself offers, but in the end it appears that in the new version of Mambo -- 4.5.1 -- the lead story block has been recoded in an effort to resolve the matter.

The story doesn't stop there. Connolly found about a dozen companies that were using a tainted version of Mambo and asked them to stop using the program entirely. One complied and even offered a settlement check as compensation for their unwitting error. The remaining companies did not comply or complied in ways that were not satisfactory to Connolly.

Upon contacting the OSSI, Brian spoke with John Weathersby, the executive director of the institute, who in turn spoke with IP expert/author Larry Rosen briefly. According to Weathersby, Rosen would not comment on the matter at the time because he needed to see the whole picture and talk to everyone involved. The only advice Rosen could offer was to get a lawyer to deal properly with the issue. No one recommended suing or threatening end-users.

Weathersby agreed to act as a sort of mediator in the dispute but didn't have the chance to talk to the Mambo project members about the issue. "We've got to address this in a level-headed, business-minded way," he said. "I'd like to see everyone calm down, put all documents on the table, see everybody's cards, and resolve this."

But by that point things had already gone too far; the Mambo community was far from cooperative, Sakic had more or less gotten away with allegedly stealing code that he was paid to develop, and competitors were allowed to take advantage of the situation.

NewsForge was unable to contact Sakic by phone on Friday to seek comment on the matter at the time of publication, but Connolly says that Sakic admitted what he'd done in email. According to Connolly, Sakic was contracted for about eight months to assist in development of Furthermore. He was paid for his services, and Connolly said at no time did he ever tell Sakic that he was free to donate any code.

Suing end-users 'not prudent'

"If it is as he says, and they do have his code in Mambo, that's not right," Weathersby told us Friday afternoon. But at no time did either he or Rosen advise Connolly to post his notice about suing end-users of Mambo. "That's ... not prudent," said Weathersby. "Every site I have -- including the OSSI homepage -- runs on Mambo."

All things being equal, one thing is certain: Connolly believes that his code has been stolen, despite the fact that he has not personally examined any code in Mambo to verify its origin. He's just going by what his contractor told him and what he's observed. The legal issues in this matter are for the courts to decide, but will it be Sakic in court, or some innocent end-user?

Connolly doesn't want license fees or special control over Mambo; all he wants is to make money off his services, and he can't do that if every Mambo user has parts of his software that make his work valuable.

Emir Sakic's response

Emir Sakic has contacted NewsForge has given us this exclusive reply in response to this story. The following is copied verbatim from his message:<?p>

Back in September 2003 Mr Connolly paid me to do the Mambo Open Source customization for his site Literatigroup.com. There was no copyright agreement or contract signed.

One of the customizations I did was to enable a ?leading story followed by two stories in separate columns? alteration of the frontpage component. I modified an existing Mambo frontpage component and hardcoded nine lines of code that would display the leading story. This alteration was a copy from another part of the original frontpage component released under GPL and copyrighted by Miro International Pty. I was not the original author of the frontpage component in question and thus, Brian Connolly does not own this code.

A month later (October 3, 2003) I developed similar functionality and contributed it to Mambo core. I did not use the same code as the nine lines delivered to Connolly. I implemented a different, dynamic solution with selectable frontpage settings. Again, this code was not same or derived from the snippet made for Literatigroup.com. It was a different development which can be verified by comparing the frontpage component files (I have all files in question).

Mr Connolly still claims that Mambo contains the code developed for him when in fact it does not. If you would take a look, you would see that the code in Connolly?s site differs from the code in any version of Mambo. While software implementation can be protected by copyright laws, ideas in software are not covered by copyright. Nothing stops anyone to implement the same (in this case just a similar) functionality using different code. Not to mention that the whole file was a GPL derivative and, as such, must remain GPL.

Mr Connolly still seems to think that he owns exclusive rights to the ?leading story? concept in Mambo and requests the frontpage component re-licensed according to his terms. There were hundreds of sites all over the internet that used the same layout even before October 3rd 2003, so Connolly cannot say it was originally his idea (for example see http://news.bbc.co.uk).

I should mention that Connolly has distributed copies of Mambo under the GPL on his homepage (http://www.literatigroup.com/furthermore/, now removed, screenshot available) which means he has acknowledged that Mambo is GPL and Copyright Miro International Pty. Connolly has only contacted Mambo about a year after alleged breach and during this time he was an active forum member knowing of the existence of this functionality in the Mambo core. Connolly also sent threatening emails to mambo users directly and has harassed them (see http://www.mamboportal.com/content/view/1562/). He has been taking my words out of context and posted flat lies in try to prove the claims he can?t prove by simply comparing the code in question.

To summarize it:
1) The code delivered to Brian Connolly is not the same as the code implemented in Mambo.
2) The code delivered to Brian Connolly was derived from GPL, Copyright Miro International Pty.
3) Brian Connolly distributed copies of Mambo that had the so-called 'infringing' functionality under the GPL.
4) There are no copyright assignments with my signature on.
5) Brian Connolly has no trademarks or patents on anything resembling the disputed functionality.

Emir Sakic
http://www.sakic.net

The official response from the Mambo project can be found here.

The situation seems to involve misunderstandings and misinterpretations, especially of and regarding the GNU General Public License. No matter who is right or correct, the end result is that the code that Connolly feels that he's rightfully paid for and should own is now available to anyone -- whether it should be or not. One thing that Brian Connolly said to us yesterday rings true above all else: "This will not be resolved in the media."

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.