WordPress is distributed with the General Public License (GPL). It contains the terms under which the software is distributed, and there are few things more divisive in the project. Matt and Mike, the founding developers of WordPress, supported the license. Before getting involved with b2, Mike had contributed to free software projects. He’d submitted patches to the version control system CVS and the DJGPP compiler, and bug reports to database software MySQL. When it came to choosing his blogging software, the license played a big part in his decision. Movable Type, for example, was not an option because it wasn’t GPL. As a coder, Mike was accustomed to software-sharing and to working on someone else’s code to make it your own. It was while he was working on DJGPP that he first learned about GNU and the ideas behind the GPL. “I learned about Richard Stallman and read his story,” he says. “he instilled those four principles that just sort of inspired me.”
The principles that inspired Mike have inspired thousands of software developers. They are ideas that resonate with hackers, that speak to freedom, and a society based on sharing and collaboration. Communities like WordPress have grown up around an ethos that has influenced models of software development all over the world.
The principles are the clauses written into the General Public License (GPL), the terms under which the software is distributed. The license was written by Richard Stallman for software he released as part of the GNU software project. [footnote]In his book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Stephen Levy explores the Lab at MIT where Richard Stallman worked, and how the Lab’s decline led Stallman to create GNU and write the GPL.[/footnote] Exasperated by proprietary licensing — which he believed responsible for the decline of the MIT hacker lab — he wanted to distribute his software with a license that protected software users’ freedoms. The GPL protects four user freedoms that are at the heart of “free software.” “Free” in this context does not apply to price; it refers to freedom, which is the underlying ethos that drives the Free Software Foundation.[footnote]The choice of the word “free” in this context has dogged the Free Software Foundation throughout its life. The uninitiated think that “free” refers to cost. The Free Software Foundation often has to qualify “free” with the statement “free as in freedom, not as in beer.” [/footnote]
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.
These can be summarized as “users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software.” The freedoms are protected for all users. What this means in practice is that anyone can use a piece of free software — they can install it in as many places as they want and give it to whoever they wish. They can hack on it and modify it for their own needs. They can distribute any changes they make. When it comes to a piece of free software, the user has absolute freedom.
However, it’s not enough just to write freedoms into a license. Those user freedoms need to be protected. Otherwise, free software can be absorbed into proprietary software and developers get the benefits of free software, but don’t pass on those benefits to others. To ensure that these freedoms are protected, the GPL operates using what Stallman calls “copyleft.” Copyleft subverts the normal use of copyright laws to protect the terms under which the work can be distributed and redistributed. It’s a method of making a work free and requiring that all extended and modified versions of the work are free as well. In this way, the copyright holder can ensure that their work does not end up being part of a proprietary model.
Copyleft works in the following way:
- The copyright holder asserts that they hold the copyright to the work.
- The terms of distribution — that anyone can use, modify, and redistribute the work, provided they pass the same freedom on to everyone else — are added.
If a programmer wants to use a copyleft work in their own software, then that new work must provide the same freedoms as the original work. Copyright is turned on its head. It is used against itself, or, as Stallman puts it “we use copyright to guarantee their freedom.” A copyleft license doesn’t abandon copyright (i.e., by simply putting a work in the public domain) it asserts it and uses it.
The GPL is often described as a viral license. This is because any code integrated with GPL code automatically adopts the license. The GPL spreads. For free software proponents, this is important. It means that the body of work that constitutes the commons is self-sustainable and self-perpetuating, thus preserving freedom.
To see copyleft in action, simply open up the license that comes bundled with WordPress. The head contains the following:
b2 is (c) 2001, 2002 Michel Valdrighi – firstname.lastname@example.org –
Wherever third party code has been used, credit has been given in the code’s comments.
b2 is released under the GPL and WordPress – Web publishing software
Copyright 2003-2010 by the contributors
WordPress is released under the GPL
It’s the perfect example of how a copyleft license works. Michel asserted his original copyright for b2 and then distributed it under the GPL, which said that anyone was free to distribute and modify it, provided they pass those freedoms on. This meant that when it was originally forked, the developers had no choice but to license WordPress under the GPL. Michel’s intention to preserve b2’s freedom worked. It also means that anything that includes WordPress source code must also be GPL, so all WordPress users, no matter which form they use WordPress in, have the same freedoms. And when b2 was in danger of becoming vaporware, the license enabled Mike and Matt to fork it, and use the code as a base to continue development. The commons, of which the code is a constituent part, continues.
Mike’s passion for free software is an important foundation for WordPress’ development. b2 was the first free software project that Matt had been involved in. While he later developed a strong belief in the role of free software, it was in b2, and then in the early days of WordPress, that Matt first learned about the free software ethos, as a result of Mike’s influence. “That’s the thing I really learned from Mike,” says Matt in a 2010 interview. “b2 was the first open source project I was really involved with. I didn’t even really understand what that meant.”
The GPL complements a user-first development focus because the license emphasizes the user freedoms. This is perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings around the license. When the GPL talks about freedom, it is talking about user freedom, not developer freedom, and often the freedom of users comes at the expense of developers. Developers who want to use GPL code in their own software are restricted to using copyleft licenses for their products. There are also restrictions on the code they can integrate with their GPL code. To use a library in WordPress, for example, that library must be GPL-compatible. This emphasis on freedoms has been a fault line along which many debates in the project have happened.
The freedom of users is protected even further by the sheer number of project contributors. Even if there was consensus among the project’s leaders on changing the license, the freedoms of WordPress users would continue. Thousands of people all over the world contribute to WordPress’ codebase. Each person who writes code for WordPress retains their copyright, but agrees to license the code under the GPL. This makes it virtually impossible for the creators of WordPress to change the license. To do so, they would need to contact every single contributor and ask them to agree to the change. This would include everyone from the most prolific contributors, to those who contributed a single patch, from today’s lead developers, to Matt and Mike, and as far back as Michel. This means that WordPress will always remain free.
The choice that Michael made about using the GPL has been one of the most significant decisions in the project’s history. It’s meant that the software’s distribution terms protect user-first development, ensuring that users are free to do what they want. But what is the cost of user freedom? This is a question that has come up again and again throughout the project’s history as different groups have discovered their own rights and freedoms restricted, whether they be designers, developers, or business owners.