The Price Of GPL

Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automattic, downloaded his competitor Wix’s iOS app. It looked eerily familiar, and he confirmed it contains source code stolen from WordPress. He called them out on his blog, getting right to the point in addressing the problem:

Your app’s editor is built with stolen code, so your whole app is now in violation of the license.

Wix’s CEO, Avishai Abrahami, responded with a round of non-sequiturs that carefully evade the point that his product is built from source code for which they have not paid. One of his engineers equally misses the point, focusing on the circumstances surrounding the violation, rather than taking responsibility for the theft.

Some will take issue with the use of strong words like “stolen code,” and “theft,” with respect to a GPL violation. But that’s exactly what it is: software has been taken and deployed in Wix’s product, but the price for doing so has not been paid.

Many developers (and CEOs) seem to prefer remaining willfully oblivious to the consequences of using GPL code. They loosely interpret the terms of GPL to suit their own wishes for what they implied:

  • “It’s OK for us to use GPL code anywhere, as long as we contribute back changes.”
  • “It’s only a small amount of GPL code, so the license doesn’t apply.”
  • “We contributed to this GPL code, so we have special rights to use it.”
  • “We give back to the community in other ways, so it balances out.”

All false, yet all common interpretations of GPL, and echoes of the poor arguments presented by Wix’s CEO and engineer.

The price of GPL is fairly obvious and easy to understand, even if there is some bickering about what constitutes “linked code.” You don’t have to be a legal expert to get the gist of it: if you want to link your software with GPL code, you must also make your software’s source code available. Specifically, you must make your software’s source code available to customers who install your software, under a GPL-compatible license. You have to give your code away. That’s the price of GPL.

Many developers understand, and view the price of GPL as perfectly justified, while others (myself included) find it unacceptable. So what am I supposed to do? Not use any GPL source code at all in any of my proprietary products? Exactly. Because the price of GPL is too much for me, and I don’t steal source code.