Matt Mullenweg’s stand for the GPL against Wix

You've probably heard about as much as you want to hear regarding Wix and the GPL issues surrounding their mobile app release by now. However, I want to help sift through the noise.

First, some links:

Wix released an app that includes a fork of the WordPress app React Native editor. The WordPress iOS app is really an Automattic app, open to contributions from the community, but as Ryan McCue notes, 98.8% of iOS app commits have been made by Automattic. The editor that Wix forked is GPL version 2, and therefore utilizes a copyleft, or “viral” license.

If someone uses GPL code, common thought is that whatever they use it in must also be GPL. Heather Meeker described it like this (emphasis mine):

As a threshold matter, if you include GPL code in a program, and distribute it, you have to include GPL license notices.  Laying aside what constitutes a “derivative work” subject to GPL and other such arcana, the failure to include license notices is trivial to prove.  For the most part, the only way to cure a violation of GPL in a proprietary app is to stop distributing the app, replace the GPL code, and re-release the app.

And that's likely what will happen, once you get past all the blog posts and responses to blog posts and comments on the blog posts.

At a bare minimum, Wix should have provided a page within their app that shows the open source libraries they utilize. Other apps, like Instagram, do this. However, most apps don't use GPL libraries; it's the kind of license most proprietary app makers want to keep as far away from as possible. Not including attribution isn't just about the GPL, and the copyright issues are clear cut.

What's less clear cut is the “derivative work” component. Matt and many other folks clearly believe including any GPL component in the app means the whole thing should be GPL. The obvious point is that Wix's editor is a derivative work. But Wix's CEO and others have argued that does not mean the rest of the app is derivative and therefore subject to being GPL.

Richard Best of WP and Legal Stuff says it's a gray area where legal experts themselves will likely disagree:

The harder question is whether the Wix mobile app [as a whole] is also a derivative work. Neither I nor, I suspect, any lawyer would want to give a firm view on that in the abstract, that is, without knowing how the app is architected, how the WordPress code is used, the volume of Wix’s original code, whether it’s separable from the WordPress code, and so on. Some will know the answers to those factual questions. I don’t. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess on that in the abstract. Even with a full factual understanding, depending on the factual landscape different lawyers may have different views on this issue given the paucity of case law on the key provisions of the GPL. I think we need to appreciate that this is one of the harder and more controversial aspects of the GPL when applied in practice.

In the end, I'm willing to make the following conclusions:

  • Wix screwed up by not attributing WordPress (and maybe others) for open source contributions in the app (this isn't yet in the app that I can tell, but I'm sure it's coming).
  • Wix should've definitely included a GPL license for their fork of the editor (they did this just today on Github).
  • Matt could've come across with a better tone in his blog post, or avoided it altogether, though we don't know the history there that may have warranted him saying what he said the way he did. The case he makes is consistent with his historical views and he's got a pretty good basis for what he said.
  • Matt could've started with legal action, and Wix would certainly not have liked that as much as the blog post.
  • This would make an interesting legal case, if purely to test the GPL in a US court, but I doubt it'll get there at all. Only popcorn eating observers would enjoy that.
  • I had questions about the GPL's compatibility with Apple App Store terms of service, because at least one app has been pulled before, but Matt said in Post Status Slack that their terms have been updated since then to account for GPL source code.
  • Wix could release the entire iOS app as GPL and keep the editor in, and even said they would in a Tweet. I'll believe that when I see it, though they do have a large collection of open source code.

I'll let you know how things go from here, but I'm guessing we'll see Wix either pull the editor from their app or go full-GPL like that Tweet promised. I'm betting they swap the editor.

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