Open source contributors, license matters

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Few days ago a post published on Arstechnica that Wix gets caught ‘<b>stealing’</b> GPL code from WordPress. You can read the full news at this link. My takeaway from the news narrows down to two hypotheses (unawareness, smartness) why such incident occurred.

Hypothesis one – unawareness: No one (including CTO, senior developers) in Wix, a professional company, is familiar with GPL regulations or software licenses, despite having proprietary product, forget about legal team. This is very unlikely because of numerous reasons, some pinpointed here:

  1. Nowadays, even a 15 years old average Joe, an open source contributor who commits code to Github knows what’s GPL and its regulations.
  2. An average tech person who uses Android phone knows already why Google is obligated to publish its changes to Linux kernel under GPL-2.0.
  3. Again an average tech person knows about Linux, Richard Matthew Stallman, and Free software movement.
  4. A layman who read Free Software, Free Society book by Richard Stallman knows what is GPL license and how it differs from other licenses (See page 91, Noncopylefted Free Software).

If nobody in Wix knows what are GPL regulations, according to the aforementioned instances, my conclusion is they are unprofessional and dilettantish.

Hypothesis two (most likely one) – smartness: Wix knows what exactly they are doing and intentionally, they have published their changes of the WordPress components under MIT license to bypass GPL regulations indirectly without much being accused of copyright infringement.

The question is how does it work?

The answer is related on how MIT and GPL licenses work. According to MIT license, in simple words, anyone can benefit from the code despite its usages (whether is proprietary purposes or non-profit), which from many professionals’ point of view this is a deficiency (see what happened to X11).

However, GPL covers this gap by imposing/adding an additional regulation that any derivative code of GPL licensed code must be published under GPL to ensure user’ freedom is respected, which is the beauty of GPL code, thanks to RMS.

Hence, Wix by dodging to publish the changes of WordPress code under GPL license, tried to bypass the most important GPL regulation by publishing the changes under MIT license.

But how does it benefit Wix?

The answer is so obvious. Once the changes published under MIT, they can fork a new repository from and make it proprietary without any copyright infringement. That means that they would no longer obligated to publish the changes publicly and their business would solely benefit from it, despite the fact that the base code is stolen from WordPress.

However, they caught red handed, thanks to Matt Mullenweg.

Lesson to be learned from this incident

Open Source contributors, especially those on GitHub, must be aware of the risk of publishing their codes under MIT, BSD or Apache License because once their codes have business value many opportunist companies (e.g., Wix, Apple) would take advantage of it and the original owner cannot do anything about it.