What a GPL’d Movable Type means for WordPress

Sometime before the end of the year (October being the current guess), Six Apart will be releasing a GPL version of MT, termed “MTOS” (Movable Type Open Source). WordPress is also licensed under the GPL. So, once Movable Type is available under the same license as WordPress, what are the ramifications?

The ramifications are interesting, because while both will be available under the same license, there will be one key difference between MTOS and WordPress. And that is that MTOS will have (on paper) one contributor. Six Apart will be accepting patches from third parties, but only if they sign over copyright of such contributions to Six Apart. Contributions to WordPress are owned by the person who contributes them.

The reason Six Apart requires this, is so they are able to distribute a non-GPL version of Movable Type. Otherwise, the viral nature of the GPL would require that the “pro” version of Movable Type also be GPL licensed.

The interesting ramification of this is that while code can flow from MTOS to WordPress, Six Apart can’t allow WordPress code (or code from any other GPL’d project) to end up in MTOS, unless it gets the author (or authors) of that code to sign over copyright of the code to Six Apart.

Note that this also allows Six Apart at any time in the future to say “As of today, we are no longer releasing a GPL version of Movable Type.” And that would require that someone fork the code in order to proceed with development. WordPress can’t easily do that, as it is not owned by a single legal entity.

Update: added “(on paper)” to the second paragraph. Didn’t mean to minimize the contributions of third parties, merely note the “on paper” ownership of such contributions.

66 thoughts on “What a GPL’d Movable Type means for WordPress

  1. I think I will continue to focus on WordPress. I am not a contributor to the code but still wish to ensure the continued availability of the platform I use. Besides I like WordPress better.

    Gene

  2. rlparker says:

    “there will be one key difference between MTOS and WordPress. And that is that MTOS will have one contributor. Six Apart will be accepting patches from third parties, but only if they sign over copyright of such contributions to Six Apart.”

    I think it more likely that we will very quickly see a fork of MTOS with *lots* of contributors who will not sign over copyright of their contributions, but will instead create a GPL project that may well provide even more functionality then the MT “Pro” version. ‘-)

  3. This might have a weird ramification.

    Let’s say I write a plugin called “Annoying Seizure-Inducing Neon Post Headlines,” that makes your titles flash through shockingly awful colors. Let’s also say 10,000 WordPress users install it in their attempt to create the look and feel of MySpace.

    If a member of the Dash family drops a wad of cash on my front lawn under a pile of Six Apart stock-option futures and actually buys the rights to my ASINPH plugin…

    …does that mean my cadre of MySpace 10,000 Maniacs have to remove ASINPH from their WordPress blogs or face DCMA notices from Vox?

    Yes, the question is phrased in a silly way. But if Six Apart does acquire the rights to a popular plugin, what does that do? What if they decide to pass up their chance to buy ASINPH, and instead go after a developer like Alex King?

  4. That was a useful post :)

    Well I don’t use MT, so I’m not really into this. Though really if I did use MT and decided to contribute to its code I really wouldn’t mind what Six Apart does to it – all that’s enough to be proud of is doing an OS project a favor :D

  5. Pingback: BoltPress
  6. But on the other hand, that means that Code from Movable Type can be put into WordPress, therefore WordPress may actually come out as a Winner from this step.

  7. Hi Mark, thanks for the mention of our work on MT. I don’t think it’s accurate to say “MTOS will have one contributor” simply because of the copyright assignment policy we’ve set; I haven’t seen any similar post where you assert that Apache or MySQL or the Free Software Foundation itself only “have one contributor”, despite their having similar policies, so I’m curious what makes you say that in this case.

    Your fourth paragraph is incorrect; Any GPLed code from one project can be included in any other GPLed project. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but you’ve conflated the MTOS product with any non-GPLed offerings we might make.

    I might also add to your final statement, “Note that this also allows Six Apart to release the code under other licenses, such as the BSD or Artistic licenses that they’ve used for much of their earlier open source efforts, or even the GPL v.3.” I don’t know whether that’s something Automattic could do, but I do hope we can continue some productive conversations about this. I don’t understand your omissions or misrepresentations here, especially since they seem out of character for your usual evaluations of open source platforms, but if you need more information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

  8. On the flip side, if you look at the contribution policy on the MT4 website, Six Apart recommend publishing changes as plugins if possible if the developer isn’t happy with signing over the copyright to their code. Perhaps in a way this will push modularity a bit more and avoid creating a bloated core product, albeit for the wrong reasons?

  9. Who cares?

    I had downloaded MT some time back, and least to say, its an overduely complex structure that only hardcore MT fans would like to build, use and maintain…However, WordPress runs out-of-the-box, its very much user oriented blogging software..

    Thanks to all wordpress developers, users, coders and bloggers for contributing..

  10. The copyright issue is crazy. I can’t imagine that being sustainable. I would imagine that there will either be a very intresting fork, or they’ll reconsider, or the former will cause the latter.

    As far as the “one contributor” thing, wordpress has fewer committers than 6A has employees, i think. As far as a single source, I don’t see a huge difference.

  11. There is another point about the GPL version of MT…

    OK, Six Apart dont want to include patches in MT if the author dont sign the policy agreement. But someone can take the MT GPL’d version and make a fork for the community.

    Creating a true alternative for WP… (until habariproject gets stable ;)

  12. Actually, the Free Software Foundation does the same thing with the projects they maintain, like GCC and the GNU Tools, so it can be sustainable.

    Of course, we know the FSF isn’t likely to close the source on their projects and force the rest of the world to fork the last GPL’d release. Six Apart… I’m not so sure.

  13. Actually, it looks like a sane thing to do. Although not using the GPL would be even better (I think the MPL/CDDL permits binary distribution under proprietary terms, even though the code must remain free.

    Another option would be permitting users to keep copyright to their patches, but under a permissive (ie. BSD-like) license.

  14. it’s interesting then, to think about what 6A/MT is gaining from this.

    I mean the funny thing is that someone in the world thinks that (basically) freely distributed Perl code can somehow be “closed” source. I mean I get the copyright issues, but they’re distributing source code left and right. Who hasn’t tinkered with it? (Well not me, because I’m a WP user, and have been since b2, but still….)

    I mean and people can fork WP whenever they want, that’s what MU is after all… So, I think what we really need to be doing is starting an over/under for the emergence of a “real” open source GPL’d fork of MTOS that over takes the official MTOS….

  15. Can you really call this open source? It seems they’re using the label of “open source” to get free labor from all of the coders out there who will undoubtedly contribute to the project.

  16. Um, yea….Mark I’m so embarassed becuz I really haven’t the slightest idea of what this post is talkin’ about. I mean even tho’ I just have a fashion blog, I still want to be technically sound, y’know??? ……..So what is a MTOS exactly? And precious Jesus what is a GPL version of MT.

    Z’maji @ hauteblogxoxo.wordpress.com

  17. sunburntcamel, committers!=contributors. I have never been a committer, but I sure am a contributor since I still hav my copyright over small pieces of code in the WP source. At one count, there were over 50 contributors to WP, and I bet it is a lot, lot more than that now.

  18. @kelson –
    but then, they did change the GPL to benefit their own agenda (GPLv3), regardless of how it serves their users (Linus), which may result in a fork.

    @carthic –
    that’s true. i was confusing the project direction with the project licensing.

  19. This is a nice post. Six Apart should do more studying and release MT as completely Free software. I don’t know what they are afraid of.

    @sunburnkamel:
    GPLv3 is the next version of GPLv2. What do you expect, GPL never to be updated? Linus is not the ONLY user of GPL license and GPLv3 was not finalised ‘regardless of how it servers the users’ but went through plenty of discussions for over an year. Many things were changed according to users’ feedback. You should do your homework.

  20. @tabrez –
    changing the terms of a contract isn’t significantly different from using a different contract. the GPL is a contract, not software.

    You’re right, Linus is not the only user, I should have used an ‘e.g.’ before his name. there are plenty of people objecting to V3. It went through discussions, but still came through with many of the problems that were raised, because RMS wanted them in there.

    eff your homework. you did a piss poor job on it, don’t assume I haven’t been reading this stuff for the past year.

  21. Responding to Anil,

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say “MTOS will have one contributor” simply because of the copyright assignment policy we’ve set; I haven’t seen any similar post where you assert that Apache or MySQL or the Free Software Foundation itself only “have one contributor”, despite their having similar policies, so I’m curious what makes you say that in this case.

    I probably should have added the qualifier “on paper.” So “on paper,” there is only one contributor. I don’t mean to say that other people cannot contribute — just that “on paper,” their contributions will be signed over to Six Apart.

    Your fourth paragraph is incorrect; Any GPLed code from one project can be included in any other GPLed project. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but you’ve conflated the MTOS product with any non-GPLed offerings we might make.

    I didn’t say Six Apart can’t include other GPL’d code, but that you couldn’t allow it to be included, as such an inclusion would prevent Six Apart from making a non-GPL’d MT release that used that code. That does, however, assume that MTOS and MT 4.0 are very closely related, code-wise, and that improvements that go into MTOS would also go into MT 4.0 — please correct me if that is not the case. And LGPL code is fine for inclusion (indeed MT 4.0 already has some LGPL code).

    I might also add to your final statement, “Note that this also allows Six Apart to release the code under other licenses, such as the BSD or Artistic licenses that they’ve used for much of their earlier open source efforts, or even the GPL v.3.” I don’t know whether that’s something Automattic could do, but I do hope we can continue some productive conversations about this.

    It isn’t really something Automattic can do. Automattic only owns the WordPress trademark. And it is my understanding that code contributions to WordPress from Automattic employees are owned by those individuals, not Automattic. Regardless, there are many WordPress contributors who are not Automattic employees. So Automattic’s ability to relicense WordPress is effectively nil.

    I don’t understand your omissions or misrepresentations here, especially since they seem out of character for your usual evaluations of open source platforms, but if you need more information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

    They certainly weren’t intentional.

  22. Responding to Ike,

    Let’s say I write a plugin called “Annoying Seizure-Inducing Neon Post Headlines,” that makes your titles flash through shockingly awful colors. Let’s also say 10,000 WordPress users install it in their attempt to create the look and feel of MySpace.

    If a member of the Dash family drops a wad of cash on my front lawn under a pile of Six Apart stock-option futures and actually buys the rights to my ASINPH plugin…

    …does that mean my cadre of MySpace 10,000 Maniacs have to remove ASINPH from their WordPress blogs or face DCMA notices from Vox?

    You didn’t mention the license of your hypothetical plugin, but as most WordPress plugins are GPL-licensed, I’ll answer it that way first.

    If the plugin were GPL, no one would have to install it, as the pre-purchase version of the plugin was licensed under the GPL. Users of the plugin would be free to use, modify and redistribute the plugin (with or without modifications).

    What if they decide to pass up their chance to buy ASINPH, and instead go after a developer like Alex King?

    Most of the plugins by Alex King are GPL licensed, from what I have seen, so there is a path forward, just as there would be a path forward if Six Apart were to stop releasing MTOS or stop releasing it as GPL.

    Responding to 2xKnight, jdavey, tabrez,

    So they want all the benefits of Open Source, but without any of the responsibilities. Nice.

    Can you really call this open source? It seems they’re using the label of “open source” to get free labor from all of the coders out there who will undoubtedly contribute to the project.

    Six Apart should do more studying and release MT as completely Free software. I don’t know what they are afraid of.

    MTOS will be completely Free and Open Source software. The copyright ownership issue does not change that. The contributions by third parties included in MTOS will be released as GPL’d software. Anyone can take that code and use it freely.

  23. I am sorry, but I feel this is a very crucial part of the argument that nobody has mentioned yet…

    Is Six Apart even *relevant* anymore?

    Between their earlier licensing fiasco with MT, their completely inept handling of LiveJournal social issues, and this (on its face, anyhow) attempt to schmooze open source…does MT even matter?

    Attempting to mitigate the “open” factor by invoking MySQL and Apache, or the FSF is a crapshoot, considering Six Apart’s rapidly deteriorating reputation in the blog world. The bottom line is this: it’s easy to say “we are just doing what MySQL and others do”, but the bottom line is, Six Apart has credibility issues when it comes to being open, and playing nice.In the case of the FSF and Apache…these are, for the most part Non-profs, with established reputations of not doing Really Bad Things. MySQL has had some thorny moments with assignment, but overall, they have tried to play nice. Six Apart, has a rep for doing Not At All Nice Things. And that’s what they are fighting here: skepticism that their motives are honest and fair.

    These issues are not going to be solved over night, or with spin or press releases. They are going to be solved when Six Apart puts its money where its mouth is. Plain and simple. It’s a problem of their own making, and its a deep hole to get out of.

    Considering how they have handled themselves, I wouldn’t use MT, GPL’d or not. I don’t trust the company, so I wouldn’t trust the codebase. The fact that they want to authors to sign over copyrights to what is rapidly becoming a foundering company with sagging returns is a warning sign for me. Six Apart has proven more than a few times they have a tendency to slide into behavior that shows them to be “other-directed”, as evidenced by their treatment of LiveJournal, and the possible links to Talibangelical type groups.

    MT is not a threat, or even a serious competitor to WP. It could be, if Six Apart did some radical changes to the way they do business, and their own corporate climate. But, as it stands now, the MTOS move seems more out of desperation, than one of smart business.

    With the loss of Brad Fitzpatrick, and his branding of Six Apart as pretty stagnant, and the recent CEO shakeup… developers thinking about contributing to MT should take a long look at the company, to get the big picture, before they commit themselves.

  24. Mark,

    Thank you so much for helping to lead a discussion on this topic, and for clarifying people’s common misunderstandings about the GPL. Especially in so far as people question Six Apart’s integrity by deciding to release Movable Type under a completely Free and Open Source license.

    One of the interesting hypotheticals I have seen talked about in this thread and others is that Six Apart could release MTOS under the GPL and then stop releasing it under the GPL. While theoretically possible, I cannot imagine any reasonable company or person actually doing that.

    The GPL is a perpetual license and therefore releasing something under the GPL is a lifelong commitment. If we ever stopped supporting MTOS we would invite people to fork the software. And while people are free to fork the software on their own, I doubt that a fork is what anyone really desires for the product, not Six Apart, its users or its developers.

    Bottom line, we are committed to keeping Movable Type Free and Open. We are committed to providing a version of Movable Type free from any limitation upon its use. Forever.

    Its funny, the common perception about OSS is that what motivates people to release software under such a license is almost entirely governed by the licensers ability to accept code contributions from 3rd parties. If this was our only motivation, I am not entirely sure we would have decided to release MT under the GPL, because our proprietary license has not historically been a barrier to people submitting code contributions and patches to us.

    Surprised? Well as tycho points out MT has been distributed with completely visible source forever, and in that form, it is hard for many people not to modify the code. And assuming those same people don’t like to constantly reapply their changes to each release of the software they ultimately contribute those changes back to us. So despite MT’s historically proprietary nature, we have a long history of 3rd parties contributing code to us. (Although I will say that we have seen a dramatic increase in the volume of contributions since the our MTOS announcement.)

    So if code contributions are not the “most valuable” component of the GPL, then what is? Well, the most salient part of the GPL IMHO is not the fact that people can contribute to or modify the code, it is the fact that they are free to modify *and* redistribute that modifed code.

    And that is the power of the GPL: distribution.

    I have heard many people conjecture that our decision to open source Movable Type was motivated by competitive pressure. That could not be further from the truth. Our decision to open source MT was almost entirely motivated by one of our most important objectives of the MT4 release: to make Movable Type easier to obtain, install, and get started using. Which I might add is closely related to a broader more important corporate (and personal) objective: to make it easier for more and more people to blog. Period.

    Therefore, open sourcing Movable Type is perhaps one of the best single things we could do to help us achieve this objective because it enables us and others to distribute Movable Type with such programs as cPanel and Plesk. It even opens the door for Movable Type to be distributed with Linux based operating systems, and to live inside the official package repositories of CPAN, Debian, Redhat, Ubuntu and others.

    In regards to code sharing between the two platforms I am surprised no one has thought to bring up the fact that while theoretically possible, the probability is unlikely due to the incompatibility between Perl and PHP. The two products’ very underpinning is a huge barrier to code sharing.

    Granted, there are other ways we can share “code.” We can share HTML and CSS and perhaps other technologies.

    But this is precisely why we have invested so much in the design of Movable Type architecturally. We have worked hard to create strong, yet flexible, interfaces between every logical component in the system, including but not limited to the presentation layer. This is precisely what enabled us to build the iPhone plugin for Movable Type so quickly, because our architecture allows for our administrative interface to be skinned easily without touching or relying upon the underlying business logic.

    The same is true for our published blogs as well. Our templating language does not require people to embed SQL directly into the templates in order to render their blog.

    Why is this significant? Well aside from helping to create a more modular and secure product, aside from giving us greater agility in developing new features, from a licensing stand point this modularity means that we can more easily [re]distribute changes to the core product without necessarily having to change the core product.

    In this way I actually believe that where our technology is compatible, it is very likely changes can and will flow both ways. Granted we may not fold every change into the core of our product, but the GPL will allow us to distribute those changes as addons that respect and honor the logical and technical interfaces defined by the product.

    I actually look forward to working with the WordPress community more. There are so many things we *could* be doing together but are not. I mean, really, take a step back for a second and think of a blogging world in which WordPress and Movable Type users are not adversaries, but actually allies?

    Byrne

  25. Bottom line, we are committed to keeping Movable Type Free and Open. We are committed to providing a version of Movable Type free from any limitation upon its use. Forever.

    Glad to hear it!

    Well, the most salient part of the GPL IMHO is not the fact that people can contribute to or modify the code, it is the fact that they are free to modify *and* redistribute that modifed code.

    And that is the power of the GPL: distribution.

    Fantastic. Or should I say… Fantastico? :-) I have no data to support this, but I would guess that the ability for web hosts to offer automated WordPress installation was a significant factor in WordPress’ adoption rate. And in 2003 I definitely remember that the lack of that ability was hindering Movable Type.

    In regards to code sharing between the two platforms I am surprised no one has thought to bring up the fact that while theoretically possible, the probability is unlikely due to the incompatibility between Perl and PHP. The two products’ very underpinning is a huge barrier to code sharing.

    Is MTOS not going to get MT 4.0′s PHP-based engine? Surely there could be some code sharing there. And as soon as MTOS is released, I plan on digging into the admin interface to see what inspiration can be gained there — so hopefully if code cannot flow, at least ideas and methods-of-attack for common issues can be shared.

    Granted, there are other ways we can share “code.” We can share HTML and CSS and perhaps other technologies.

    Precisely.

    I mean, really, take a step back for a second and think of a blogging world in which WordPress and Movable Type users are not adversaries, but actually allies?

    I await MTOS’ release eagerly. :-)

  26. Just for the clueless – MT is free for personal use.
    Oh, loved this one: “MT is not a threat, or even a serious competitor to WP.” never mind that MT has by far the lion’s share of the market.. you were almost right though – just got the names around the wrong way.

  27. I am still a little confused about what Six Apart’s strategy is with basically encouraging a fork of the code. I would guess that WordPress is dominating right now, although I haven’t seen any usage stats in about a year, almost all new blogs are using either WordPress or a heavy CMS like Drupal for podcasting and etc. I always liked MT and I think competition is healthy, but at this point I have two years into WordPress and Joomla and don’t think I’ll be switching tools anytime soon. Curious to see what the community developers come up with though.

  28. @Paul – Help me understand how our strategy encourages a fork? Does MySQL, Apache or any software from the Free Software Foundation “encourage” a fork by using a contribution policy virtually identical to MTOS?

    I think it is worth considering the larger question of “why is a singular copyright so important to organizations such as Apache, MySQL, the Free Software Foundation, Red Hat, OpenOffice.org, Plone and countless others?”

    And if such a strong precedent exists, especially among the most well reputed, well respected and most popular open source projects on the Internet, then why is it wrong for Six Apart to follow their lead?

  29. I don’t see the issue here with forking MTOS. It’s not like they can retroactively come back and undo the GPL license on what they’ve already released. If they’re that stupid, you can better believe that there will be a new MTOS project, and that all of the developer base will actively migrate their clients over to MTOS to ensure that the inmates no longer run the asylum.

Comments are closed.