Mixed source mix-up: the Joomla! example

In a sign that allowing proprietary add-ons to open source code may create more problems and friction than it solves, Linux.com highlights a growing furor in the Joomla! community over proprietary extensions to the GPL code. The answer for Joomla! is to

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Sometimes popularity isn't worth the trade-offs it may require, it would seem. Anyway, not for Joomla!, as Linux.com highlights in an article yesterday. The Joomla! team had apparently allowed proprietary extensions to its GPL code base as a way to grow in popularity, but the effect has been to breed mistrust and confusion.

Joomla's original intention was arguably a good one: be very "open" to outside development - of proprietary and open source kinds - so as to serve a more diverse community:

It seemed that Joomla! had created a thriving economy for developers, arguably because its tolerance for proprietary extensions attracted entrepreneurs who discovered an audience hungry for inexpensive but useful add-ons. Further solidifying the third-party developers' position that they were within their rights to develop non-GPL addons, Landry and others explicitly stated in Joomla! forums that the decision about whether to allow proprietary extensions was up to the copyright holder. In a June 2006 topic entitled "1.5 licence change clarification," Landry wrote that the Joomla! license in version 1.5 would "make sure that commercial third-party developers that use Joomla! as a platform can do so without fear of having to release GPL."

The problem, however, is that it's hard to serve two masters. A hybrid approach means that you'll invariably take the path of least resistance to sales and profit, which is often a great short-term answer but a terrible long-term solution. This certainly seems to be the case at Joomla!:

This April, a discussion at the Joomla! forums focused on the growing concern among the core developers that the extensions and templates upon which so many successful businesses had been built were violating Joomla!'s GPL license. "It was something that had been in the back of our minds," Landry says. "We were uncertain about our legal stance, and it concerned many of us."Landry says the team couldn't help but notice that none of the other open source CMS projects allowed third-party developers to market proprietary extensions....

[Joomla! lead] Landry wants developers to understand that the reason Joomla! wants to move closer to the GPL is to protect the project. "If we are condoning violations, we're weaker in a legal sense. If someone challenged our license down the road, if we've systematically been condoning violations, they could say, 'What's different now?'" For instance, he says, there have been several occasions when other parties have simply lifted Joomla! code, rebranded it, and released it as a commercial product. "That's clearly not acceptable," Landry says. "But the more we condone, the more these people have the ability to argue that we're not enforcing the license anyway."

Ultimately, I think the Joomla! team will find that the short-term pain associated with enforcing its use of the GPL will be just that: short-term. There are a range of web content management projects like Joomla! that use the GPL (Drupal being perhaps the most popular in the community) and see no shortage of contributions and uptake. The company/project simply needs to enforce the license and it will find that a pureplay approach makes for a better story than "all things to all people" does.

I wish the team luck. Joomla! is a great project, one that will thrive under the GPL. It doesn't need to kowtow to lowest-common denominator open source in order to thrive. In fact, it should do the precise opposite. There's money in freedom.