Part 2/Chapter 9

Freedom Zero

In early 2004, Movable Type was the most popular self-hosted blogging platform. The service pegged Movable Type at 70% of the market share for self-hosted blog platforms in February 2004. It was used all over the world, by everyone from individual bloggers to big media outlets.

On May 13th 2004, Six Apart, the company behind Movable Type, announced changes to Movable Type’s license. Movable Type 3.0, the newest version, came with licensing restrictions, which meant that users not only had to pay for software that was previously free, but pay for each additional software installation. Movable Type users were upset and angry about the license changes, and they took to their blogs to tell the world. Anil Dash (anildash), who was Vice President and Chief Evangelist at Six Apart, says:

Nobody had ever had an audience where by definition every single one of your customers had a blog before. And so nobody had ever had a social media shit storm before. And now you can see a fast food company makes a stupid tweet, and they have like a checklist. They’re like, oh, okay, we fired the intern, we’re sorry, it won’t happen again, here’s the hashtag for how we’re going to apologize, we made a donation… like you just run through the list. It doesn’t even get attention unless it’s something really egregious. But it hadn’t happened before. And mostly because nobody else had a lot of customers that were bloggers before. So you might have one. But every single person we’d ever had as a customer was a blogger.

Respected programmer and writer, Mark Pilgrim, wrote one of the most influential posts on the license changes. In his post, Freedom Zero, Pilgrim reminds his readers that while Movable Type had been “free” (as in free from cost), it wasn’t free according to the definition of the Free Software Foundation (free as in freedom, not as in beer), and while the source code might be available, it wasn’t open source as defined by the Open Source Initiative. He described Movable Type as having been “free enough”; developers could hack on the code and add features, and while they couldn’t redistribute their modifications, they could share patches, so everyone had been happy enough.

Pilgrim, like Movable Type’s other customers, had watched as Movable Type 2.6 fell behind, while Six Apart focused on their growing hosted platform: Typepad. He, and others, waited for Movable Type 3.0 to appear, only to discover that the new features were lacking and, worse, there was a new licensing plan, so that “free enough” no longer meant free in any sense.

To continue to run his sites, Pilgrim would have to pay $535. Instead of paying that money to Six Apart, he donated it to WordPress. He wrote:

Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program, for any purpose. WordPress gives me that freedom; Movable Type does not. It never really did, but it was free enough so we all looked the other way, myself included. But Movable Type 3.0 changes the rules, and prices me right out of the market. I do not have the freedom to run the program for any purpose; I only have the limited set of freedoms that Six Apart chooses to bestow upon me, and every new version seems to bestow fewer and fewer freedoms. With Movable Type 2.6, I was allowed to run 11 sites. In 3.0, that right will cost me $535.

WordPress is free software. Its rules will never change. In the event that the WordPress community disbands and development stops, a new community can form around the orphaned code. It’s happened once already. In the extremely unlikely event that every single contributor (including every contributor to the original b2) agrees to relicense the code under a more restrictive license, I can still fork the current GPL-licensed code and start a new community around it. There is always a path forward. There are no dead ends.

Movable Type is a dead end. In the long run, the utility of all non-Free software approaches zero. All non-Free software is a dead end.

This site now runs WordPress.

Pilgrim’s post was one factor that led to an exodus from Movable Type to WordPress. Even if users were willing to pay for their websites, what if Six Apart changed their licensing terms again? How much would Movable 4.0 cost? How many sites would users be able to run? It was too easy for Six Apart to change the rules, but WordPress’ rules could never change under its GPL license.

Six Apart’s move galvanized the WordPress community. It helped grow the WordPress platform. Dissatisfied Movable Type users needed a blogging platform that was flexible and without restrictions. Mark Pilgrim pointed them to WordPress, and the community was only too happy to help people migrate. Andrea Rennick (andrea_r), who was a Movable Type user at that time, recalls:

That’s when I first heard people starting to say, ‘Hey, there’s this alternative’ and then the buzz went around. There’s an alternative. It’s easier to use. You can set up multiple installs. You can’t set up multiple blogs inside the platform but it was super easy to set up a whole new one on your hosting site. It was a lot easier to install on a shared host too.

The sourceforge graph showing the increase in the number of WordPress downloads between April and May 2004.
The SourceForge graph showing the increase in the number of WordPress downloads between April and May 2004.

WordPress downloads on SourceForge more than doubled, increasing from 8,670 in April, 2004, to 19,400 in May. The IRC chat rooms were buzzing. Craig Hartel recalls: “We saw an opportunity to bring people who were passionate about something to our passion for WordPress. Maybe they would find WordPress to be as good, if not better than Movable Type. We spent a lot of time on the forums and directly with people to show that we were a stronger community, that we weren’t the kind of community that was just going to slap some information out there and then you were on your own.”

The decision not to rewrite the platform was prescient: if the community had buried itself in a rewrite, it wouldn’t have been ready to welcome and support all of the new WordPress users. Instead, they were ready. For weeks, everyone was focused on helping “switchers.” Developers wrote scripts to help people easily migrate from Movable Type to WordPress. Writers wrote guides to migrating from Movable Type to WordPress. On the blog, a post about Movable Type’s licensing scheme reminds users that the GPL “ensures that the full source is available free of charge, legally.” And WordPress had its first mention on Slashdot, as a free and open source alternative to Movable Type.

The WordPress community actively sought out people who were dissatisfied with Movable Type and suggested that they move to WordPress. As Anil remembers, “I was responding in the comments on every single blog post that had complained and saw on every single blog post Matt going in and saying you should try WordPress. And I was livid.”

Pilgrim was one of many prominent people who moved from Movable Type to WordPress. Another significant adopter was Molly E. Holzschlag. Along with Porter Glendinning, Molly had written a book about Movable Type, Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours, which was released the same week that Movable Type launched. There were people who switched for reasons other than licensing. They were frustrated by Movable Type’s functionality. For Om Malik, Movable Type 3.0 had simply too many bugs.

When Six Apart changed Movable Type’s license, it threw into relief the power relationship between developer and user. It became obvious that Six Apart held the power. At any time, they could increase prices, change the license, and change the rules. The license protected the developers. WordPress, on the other hand, had a license that protected its users, and it was to this user-focused, user-driven community, that Movable Type users flocked. Many of those who moved to WordPress would go on to become long-standing community members. It was the first of many times that WordPress’ license, the GPL, would ignite the community, and its positive effects saw WordPress go from a small fork of b2, to a competitor as a stand-alone blogging platform.