At IvyCat, we rely on Free Software every day to power everything from the version control we use to wrangle our code to the WordPress websites we create. Most of this software is released under a Free Software license called the GPL.
When the average person hears Free Software, they assume that this means software that doesn’t cost anything. While this is often true, the Free in Free Software actually refers to your freedoms, not your wallet.
In geek circles, you’ll hear nuts like me refer to software as,
“free as in speech, and free as in beer.” The former referring to your rights, and the latter to your money.
You’ve probably also heard the term Open Source, which is often thought of simply as a collaborative method of development where everyone has access to the source code, but it’s about more than just development; it’s about freedom too.
Free Software vs. Open Source
It’s not uncommon to hear the terms Free Software and Open Source used interchangeably. The Open Source definition has evolved to be quite similar to the Free Software definition and, while they usually go together like peanut butter and chocolate, there are differences between Free Software and Open Source.
The Free Software Foundation obviously prefers the term Free Software because it emphasizes your freedoms over a method of development.
However, the Free Software Foundation concedes that:
the differences . . . are small: nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open source software is free.
Personally, I prefer the term Free Software for the same reasons the FSF does, but you can call it what you like.
The Free Software Definition’s Four Freedoms
By the Free Software Foundation’s definition, Free Software guarantees you:
- 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.
Of course, in true programmer fashion, the list begins with the number zero.
There are a lot of Free Software licenses in common use, including:
- Apache Software License
- MIT License
- WTFPL – Do what the f*ck you want to public license
- The GNU General Public License (GPL)
Each license has its own terms and may, or may not, be compatible with the GPL’s terms, due to a few especially interesting and often criticized stipulations in the GPL.
The GPL and Copyleft
The GPL was first released in 1989 by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, which he founded with a mission to protect the freedoms to create, modify and distribute software under what he called copyleft terms.
Copyleft, an obvious play on copyright allows you to, not only make your work free (as in speech), but to ensure that any modified versions will also be free.
For a legal document, the GPL is surprisingly easy to read and anyone that uses software licensed under GPL should understand it, or at least read it once. Yep, that most likely means you.
Really, the gist of the GPL follows the Free Software Definition’s “Four Freedoms,” with the addition of copyleft.
Why People Love the GPL
Of course, we can all get behind protecting our rights to do what we please with our software, which is selling point number one, but the GPL also guarantees that innovations made with free software get contributed back to the community for the good of everyone.
The FSF puts it this way:
Using the GNU GPL will require that all the released improved versions be free software. This means you can avoid the risk of having to compete with a proprietary modified version of your own work.– “Why Use the GPL”
“Pinko Commies!” some folks holler. Well, I’ve been called worse.
Better, I’ve seen what an incredible impact Free Software has had on all our lives. The Free Software project WordPress, currently powers something like 18 – 20% of websites and has fostered an ecosystem of developers and freelancers that make good livings from WordPress-related businesses.
Free software is in every computer and computing device you regularly use and every site you visit.
Why People Hate the GPL
The copyleft requirement that improved versions be released as free software causes hotheads like Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, to sweat and proclaim,
“Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”
Linux software is licensed under the GPL, so if someone modifies it and releases changes to the community, the license passes along with the modified software, so it must be open source too.
You can see why this requirement doesn’t go over well with everybody. Even the Free Software Foundation advises that the GPL isn’t for everyone and sometimes, a more permissive open source license fits better. Licenses like the MIT, Apache, and WTFPL come without the copyleft requirement.
What the GPL Means to You
If you’re a website owner, it’s good to know what your rights are with the software that powers your site. If you’re running software like WordPress on your site, you need to know that nobody can take that software back, or lock down your ability to improve or extend it.
The GPL and WordPress
It seems like there’s a constant rumble about the GPL from some corner of the WordPress community. Like I said, not everyone likes it.
So, Matt Mullenweg, founded the WordPress Foundation to
“ensure free access, in perpetuity, to the software projects we support” and, I believe, to make it very clear that WordPress isn’t a company, but rather it’s a Free Software project with guidelines and rules that are independent of any company or individual.
It’s clear that the GPL is no joke to Mr. Mullenweg, the folks at Automattic, and The WordPress Foundation, and it’s one of the things I respect most about the WordPress project.
WordPress’s GPL Requirement
All software that you’ll find on WordPress.org in the Plugins Directory and the Themes Directory must be licensed under the GPL v. 2, or a compatible license. This ensures that all software on wordpress.org is free as in speech and free as in beer.
Earlier this year, the WordPress Foundation contacted some WordPress community members apparently informing them that they couldn’t volunteer or speak at WordCamps because they sell themes or plugins that don’t entirely adhere to the GPL or compatible licenses. That sparked a load of drama on Twitter; if you’re interested in reading more, check out Jake Caputo’s posts: Automattically Blackballed and Un-Blackballed.
Why would the WordPress community care so much about licensing? Well, WordPress.org states it very clearly on their License page:
The reasons for WordPress releasing under the GPL are both practical and idealistic. WordPress was born of the very freedom mentioned earlier. The predecessor to the WordPress project, b2/cafelog, was also an open source project.
Due to its origins, WordPress is obligated to copyleft, but the ideals of the GPL are clearly near and dear to many in the core of the WordPress community, and that includes me.
Non-GPL WordPress Themes & Plugins
Depending on where you’re shopping, you may come across some WordPress plugins or themes that aren’t licensed under the GPL or a compatible license. What do you do?
Be careful! Go find and read the license so you understand your rights. Some themes and plugins don’t protect your rights to run, study, change, and distribute copies. Even worse, some plugin and theme developers make their code even harder to work with by encoding it in what looks like gibberish that must be de-coded before it makes any sense to a developer.
Developers do this to protect their property, but in this community, it gives me the willies and there are certainly better ways to make money with plugins and themes.
How WordPress Plugin and Theme Developers Make Money
Right now, IvyCat has a few WordPress plugins in the WordPress Plugin Directory and they’re all released under the GPL v. 2. We also purchase and use several commercial plugins that are also licensed under the GPL.
Technically, if I buy a theme or plugin and it’s released under the GPL, I have the right to share it with friends, make copies, and even improve it. Of course, if I improve or extend it and release it to the community, it has to also be under the same, or a compatible, license.
So, what’s the business model? If it’s free software, why do you pay for it?
Premium WordPress plugin and theme developers usually sell you a license key, which allows you access to support and automatic upgrades. Without this license, the software should continue to work, but you won’t benefit from updates that may provide new features, bug fixes, and security hardening. And you don’t have support when you have questions or problems.
This model of selling support and updates makes a lot of sense and works very well for a lot of companies. At IvyCat, we happily pay for licenses for Free Software, because we value the updates and must have support when we need it.
While software licensing sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, it’s actually quite fascinating and it touches our lives every day. Plus, there are a lot of really brilliant, funny, and entertaining characters involved in the Free Software movement like Richard Stallman.
I encourage you to read up a little bit and make sure you know your software rights.
If you’d like to learn more about Free Software, the GPL, and Software Licensing, check out:
- The Free Software Foundation
- Software Freedom Conservancy
- Software Freedom Law Center (legal resources for Free Software projects)
- Open Source Initiative
- Free as in Freedom Podcast