The Death of the GPL as we know it

You may or may not have heard about a hostile incident which made Elegant Themes the victim of one of their competitors a couple of days ago. The WordPress community is divided and in turmoil because another company (which I will not name as I personally think they should be banned from anyone’s memory) used the GPL (General Public License, a license which enables software developers to use the work of others for their own purposes) to stab the San Francisco based Elegant Themes company in the back by, in fact, stealing a product that was developed for a full year by their developers Slava Myznikov and Yuriy Portnykh: the Bloom optin plugin (which you can see here). And yes, all legally done, but morally pretty despicable. Confused?

Is the GPL a monstrosity?

What is this GPL that is causing all this noise in the last few days? In short, GPL is the most widely used free software license, which guarantees end users (individuals, organizations, companies) the freedoms to run, study, share (copy), and modify the software. Software that allows these rights is called free software. Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress is an advocate of the GPL and thus, many of the companies creating Premium WP Themes, follow the rules laid out in the GPL as well, although some of them (Thesis for instance) basically use other licenses, which makes it harder for others to (mis)use their work.

Somehow, that starts to make a lot of sense to me. Because let’s face it, if you have 2 employees work for a year on a plugin and some company likes your work and is able to legally take it for their own purposes, that just doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? And that makes the GPL a monstrosity that will simply not survive a lot longer, if it becomes a legal vessel to steal from your competitors.

Death of the GPL imminent after Bloom plugin got ripped off

The Webpage promoting Bloom

The GPL was originally written by Richard Stallman, a guy who studied at Harvard and who is known for being the big papa of the free software movement. Now, personally, I think there might be some ideology behind the GPL which is sort of okay, but if it means you can just take someone else his work without his consent, it is pretty much a criminal license agreement, for the simple reason that the definition of a criminal is “someone who is taking something that is not his, whether it is property, someone else his life, etc. as if it was his own.”

Besides that, when I watch interviews online with people like Matt Mullenweg, it becomes clear to me that for instance WordPress was developed on an abandoned piece of code. Well, no problem with that I would say and the GPL works fine for that. The code was abandoned anyway. But what if the code is not “abandoned?”

In the case of the Bloom plugin from Elegant Themes, also design aspects were “legally” stolen (simply copied by the other company) and I wonder if a lawyer would be able to turn that into copyright infringement. I would actually not mind if Elegant Themes would have an angle there to sue the competition.

Because look, let’s put it in perspective. What actually happened is something like this (just as an example to show you how ridiculous this actually is): Apple sends all its personnel to Seoul (or wherever Samsungs factories are located), in the middle of the night they load up millions of laptops, phones and what have you, ship them to the US of A and put an Apple logo on them, send them to the Apple Store and starts giving them away for free! Sounds ridiculous? You betcha. (And not only for the fact that Apple wouldn’t want to steal a single product that isn’t Apple 🙂 ) In a nutshell though, that is what actually happened a couple of days ago because of a license agreement that is pretty much useless and worthless and actually invites criminals to misuse it.

And why is software so much different than an iPhone or laptop anyway? When you come to think of it, it is all property, right? You can’t do it with a Kindle version of a book, can you? Then why can you do it with plugins and WordPress themes? Beats me!

And what about copyrights?

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it states: Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Now, you might think I have lost my mind by stating this, but in fact this is part of one of the most important declarations we know. Per that declaration (not because I say so), the incident with Elegant Themes is a violation of human rights in regards to their 2 developers and designers (also designs were stolen, not only code). I know, it is a bit far-fetched, or isn’t it? Maybe a lawyer wouldn’t think so. It might be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations is considered more senior than a license of some self-declared free software dude, hm? (Probably not in this ass backwards world we live in, by the way.)

The death of the GPL is imminent

The GPL might come to its end with the incident involving “legal theft” of Elegant Themes property. First of all because it is not the first time it is happening. But also because a sane man will never commit to a license agreement that will put a big sword of Damocles above his head (read, his business). In fact, it would be irresponsible towards himself, his family and his employees.

In my opinion, the GPL died a couple of days ago. It’s just that this crazy world and people like Matt Mullenweg and Richard Stallman don’t realize it yet.

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8 Comments

  1. That is the most sane viewpoint on the GPL I have seen in years. Although we should all be greatful for Matt’s WordPress I suppose.

    • WordPress Examples

      Thanks Terry! And I agree with you. And I am greatful Matt created WordPress. But we should all take a very good look at how useful the GPL is, when it invites criminal activity, don’t you think?

  2. Mike Venables

    I had always thought that the GPL covered the php code but not the CSS code or the graphic design. If this is correct then the other, nameless, company did infringe the copyright of ET by copying the CSS and the graphic designs of the various templates.

    • WordPress Examples

      Hi Mike, thanks for your input. Yes, I guess this is a case for lawyers to look into. It seems it is not fully understood. But if I were ET, I’d drop the GPL and would take the Thesis route. It’s almost inevitable they do so. Or, as Jeff stated in his comment, outcreate the other company so much, nobody bothers.

  3. Jeff Rose

    some of the rhetoric around this incident is frustratingly inaccurate. Without vindicating the actions, what the unnamed company did was 100% legal by the GPL. By licensing your work with the GPL, you should understand what the potential for this so to happen is. Especially in the WordPress ecosystem where this very action started WordPress and WooCommerce.

    Simply changing the name (basically) and attempting to profit from it does feel morally wrong (profit in this case by requiring email address registration) but the law doesn’t deal with morality in this case.. The goal for Elegant Themes will be to innovate and extend Bloom, making it the best option, above the “fork” version

    • WordPress Examples

      Hi Jeff, I totally get what you are saying and to a certain degree you are totally right. What bothers me though (and that is also why I wrote it) is that this was an action with malice aforethought. It was cheap, immoral and stinks, especially because only after others found out about this action, the other company did everything it could to make it look “innocent.” But as I said, I totally understand your viewpoint and I appreciate your comment on the matter. As Ben stated, I think we should look into the current GPL and adjust it so hostile take overs that actually damage developers are history. And as I mentioned, WordPress itself evolved to what it is because of the GPL. But the code it is based on was abandoned and I think that is a different case entirely.

  4. Great article! I have often wondered about the usefulness of GPL and i still think it should remain. I simply think we need a GPL 2.0 which is there to protect the developers a little more. The distribution is fine but the ability to copy the code 100% and rebrand as your own needs changing. Ultimately people need to respect GPL Licensing and not take advantage. At the very least the GPL license should state that if you have used the code then you must PUBLICLY display the original developers name and a link to them in one way or another.

    • WordPress Examples

      Ben, I couldn’t agree more with you. I think what you say is something that makes total sense. That is also why I wrote it. I understand the thought behind the current GPL, but apparently it is not protecting hard working developers enough as it exists now and that bothers me a lot.

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