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More Controversy: the Joomla Extensions Directory (JED) and the GPL

Back in June of 2007, the Joomla project generated a community firestorm by announcing that, based on legal opinion, it felt that all Joomla extensions were required to be released under the GPL and that it would start to encourage third party developers to comply with that interpretation.

Detractors tried to paint this as some sort of policy decision. Somehow they never quite grasped what was being said, so I think it bears being repeated. Open Source Matters, Inc. (OSM), the non-profit charged with protecting the interests of the project, sought and obtained an opinion from legal experts well qualified in this area. Their opinion was specific, clear, and — this is critically important — while not based on precedent set by court decision, was based on several lawsuits that were settled just before going to court.

This needs some elaboration to make it as clear as possible: businesses who thought that this interpretation of the GPL was wrong, and who distributed proprietary attachments to GPL products, backed down when faced with going to trial. In my opinion, the only reason why a commercial enterprise would elect to settle a case of this nature just before going to trial is because they knew that they were likely to lose. When several suits get settled this way, all in favour of the GPL, they begin to carry significant legal weight.

So OSM had two choices: communicate the requirement that extensions be GPL or adopt another license. Considering that Joomla formed as a direct result of the actions individuals who believed in the GPL, there was really only one alternative.

Free Software — as defined by the GPL — may embrace open source, but it is not the same as open source. It is designed to give users rights and freedoms that go well beyond access to the code. For developers the interpretation is simple: get on board or use code that has a different license, period.

At the time of the GPL announcement, I had decided that Joomla was the best CMS for my web development business. I had just begun to get involved with the project, and had at best contributed a patch or two. As a small business, source code is our biggest asset and I will admit I had some concerns about giving up the ability to protect that asset. But at the same time I am not so hypocritical that I think somehow we have the right to protect our code, while using hundreds of thousands of lines of code written by others without compensation.

A few days ago, the project announced that the Joomla Extensions Directory was only going to list extensions released under the GPL (JED to be GPL Only by July 2009). Predictably, this has created another round of controversy.

The difference here is that while the original position was based on legal opinion, this decision is more one of policy. The project is choosing to not promote extensions that violate the terms of the GPL.

When the first announcement was made, my Joomla involvement had just begun. Now, I’m one of the more active members of the project and part of the Development Team. While not part of the Core Team or OSM Board, which are the bodies responsible for the governance of the project, I have made some significant contributions. Every time someone downloads and installs Joomla, they benefit in some small part from my work.

It is in this context that I’m going to respond to several reactions to the JED announcement:

Reaction Response
Joomla needs commercial extensions in order to survive and gain acceptance from business customers.
  1. Similar dire claims of the project’s demise were made when the GPL compliance announcement was made. Not only have they not come true, Joomla is more active and vibrant now than it has ever been, so FUD to that.
  2. The vast majority of extensions are already GPL, including some of the best extensions for 1.5.
  3. I successfully use the argument that the GPL protects a business from the failure of a small development shop without introducing new risks. Any business that backs away from GPL software as a user simply hasn’t been sold to properly.
I can’t make money if my extension is GPL.
  • Leaving aside the fact that there are many companies that disprove this, anyone making this argument is saying that they can’t make money without ripping me off! Start paying me and others for our contribution to your success and then I might be slightly sympathetic.
  • Maybe we need an alternative licensing model. Pay OSM US$50,000 to $100,000 for a Non-GPL Joomla site license and feel free to install as many commercial extensions as you like. Don’t install one single third party GPL extension without paying them, though!
  • Find an extensible commercial CMS and go write proprietary code for it. If your business is capable of paying for the development licenses and the training and certification courses you’ll need to get started, then you might in fact have a viable proprietary software company. If not, stop whining.
  • If you’re that great, you don’t need Joomla. Go write your own CMS.
Policy makers in the Joomla project are out-of-touch idiots and something should be done!
  • Fork it. Go on, I dare you. Everybody who is currently working on the code base understands and supports the GPL. The people who didn’t left shortly after the 2007 announcement. If you like the code, but don’t like the policies, go do it your way.
  • Personally, I think people who think they can get fair value for their work without also giving the project similar value (say, based on revenue per line of code) have ethical problems. So not only do you want to rip off the users who buy your extensions by denying them their legal rights under the GPL, but you want the Joomla project to help you do that. Good luck.
  • The site (running Joomla 1.0 (snicker) way to innovate, guys) offers proprietary extensions. This site is sponsored by the “Joint Commercial Developers Association” (, comprised mostly of people who found Joomla’s GPL interpretation unacceptable. In a year or two, we’ll be able to measure the success of this extension site by comparing it with the JED. Should be good for a laugh or two. Take a look at the frantic activity on for a peek at the future. The word joint comes to mind, but not in the context of a collective effort.
Someone will fork my code and release a better version three weeks later.
  • If your business model is predicated on code that’s so weak that someone can make significant improvements on it in three weeks, and that someone isn’t you, then maybe you should consider either a different business model or another career.
  • Let’s make it very clear: the GPL makes it difficult to earn a living by flaunting mediocre code without some other kind of value add. If you can’t come up with a proposition to add value, consider another business. Really. It’s just not going to work.

From my viewpoint, a great part of Joomla’s success has been as a direct result of its commitment to empower the end user via the GPL. Moreover, the principles of the GPL have attracted much of the talent that the project currently has. I see companies that don’t embrace these values but who continue to earn a living thanks to the project as nothing more than parasites. I’m certain that once the leeches have been pried from the JED, it will grow more quickly and become more vibrant than ever before. Time will tell.

  • Amy Stephen

    Here, here! Nothing to add, my friend. Well stated.

    January 2, 2009 at 04:43
  • Louis Landry


    January 2, 2009 at 04:58
  • Jeff Eaton

    The situation is a bit more complex; it’s not just that they directory maintainers choosing not to promote non-GPL extensions. According to every legal professional and GPL expert I’ve consulted (including several days of intense dialogue with the FSF) it’s pretty clear that for interpereted scripting languages like PHP, there’s no way — technically speaking — to make a plugin or extension that is not ‘derivative work’.

    That means that folks who are distributing non-GPL extensions for Joomla! have been violating the terms of Joomla!’s GPL license. Unless an explicit addendum is added to Joomla’s license exempting plugins from that aspect of the license, the answer to this kerfuffle is already there.

    I can understand people being sore about that if they’ve built business around the pay-for-bits model, but that ironclad aspect of the GPL is what’s allowed software based on it to flourish, too. You wants the platform, you takes the license…

    January 2, 2009 at 05:04
  • Andrew Eddie

    On the subject of forking: a good developer probably won’t look at your code (they are pretty arrogant about using their own style). They are more likely to look at your marketing screenshots and replicate and improvement functionality that way (I know, I’ve done it).

    So you loose a few customers to the fork, either they come back because the service was really, really bad (and hopefully your “special” customers never came back with luck) or you have to put your running shoes on and compete.

    On the subject of business models: it took me around 2 years to build up enough rapport, capital and code stock (and also make enough mistakes) to go into the extension market in a sustainable way. A successful business does not happen overnight and it is folly to expect that your first attempt doesn’t go pear shaped. I’m positive an analysis of failed software businesses will not show that the license was a major contributing factor in an overwhelming majority of cases.

    Licenses do not garner customer loyalty. Licenses do not make killer features suddenly appear. Licenses don’t answer support calls.

    January 2, 2009 at 05:17
  • Barrie North

    “businesses who thought that this interpretation of the GPL was wrong, and who distributed proprietary attachments to GPL products, backed down when faced with going to trial.”

    Would you care to supply some evidence for this suggestion?

    [Ed. Note: I don’t have “evidence” at hand, and I suspect that the terms of any such settlements include non-disclosure provisions, but I will see if anything substantive is available, and if so, post it.]

    January 2, 2009 at 15:08
  • Alan

    Barrie, please see this post:

    January 2, 2009 at 20:14
  • Barrie North


    I have seen that, thats a very different set of circumstances.

    I thought you were saying that there had been a case involving dreivative works of a open source CMS that has an API designed to create extensions…..

    January 3, 2009 at 01:00
  • Amy Stephen

    Alan –

    I believe a couple of words in your 1,289 word blog post struck a nerve. I remember when I first heard of the Poisoness People video how offended I was – it took me awhile before I finally watched it and started working harder at adapting to community, myself. I think the video could have a better name and I think your points would have rang just as true, absent those two words. For those who want to understand the perspective of many contributors, this post is a must read.

    Barrie –

    For a guy who doesn’t code, you sure do seem to show up at these parties, a lot. πŸ˜‰

    It seems to me that you ask a lot of questions about whether or not those of us who contribute code can enforce the GPL.

    Thankfully, it has been my experience that most people don’t need to be taken to court to show respect, they are appreciative for the gift of free, as in liberty, software and comply with the terms requested.

    Without question, communities are built on a foundation of a cooperative spirit, not litigation.

    Unfortunately, the reality is that some will not comply and can create such a problem, and consume so much time and energy, and make things so difficult for so long, that it becomes necessary to solve the question of one’s rights through litigation.

    Personally, I think it makes more sense if those who cannot abide by the license, simply not use the work.

    In the end, compliance is all that is required and for many of us, that is not negotiable. Thus far, the SFLC has been able to resolve every one of these situations out of court because compliance was ultimately obtained (some with sizeable financial penalties, as well.)

    I look at the SFLC’s ability to settle these cases out of court as a good thing and it speaks highly of the integrity of the developers involved and of the SFLC. I am about to release three months of intense work under the GPL. I am confident that my rights will be protected, or I wouldn’t contribute.

    I hope that helps a bit. Thanks.

    January 3, 2009 at 18:35
  • Alan

    Amy –

    The thing is, these people make use of my work without adherence to the terms I offer it under (nuances of the license aside, my personal intent was that extensions comply with the GPL).

    So let’s take “parasite”. One of the definitions from Wiktionary is “(pejorative) A useless person who always relies on other people’s work and gives nothing back.” ( Now, I contest the use of “useless” in that definition, but aside from that, it accurately represents my feelings. If it strikes a nerve, good. That was my intent. As for “leech”, the applicable definition is “(transitive) To drain (resources) without giving back”.

    Now, some people have been quoting these two words of mine on other sites in an attempt to paint the project in a bad light. Firstly, I’m obviously not asserting this as fact. These are my personal opinions, which is why they’re over here on my personal site. Attempting to use my words in a more broad scope is simply a crude attempt at deflection. Let’s make this an argument about attitude instead of availability of source. Nice try. The words are indeed quite strong. They correspond precisely to my strong feelings about the situation, and represent those feelings with pinpoint accuracy.

    Secondly, nobody else has bothered to take the issue up here. I suspect that’s because they knew full well they’d get a response like this one.

    If people don’t like my words, they are free — and strongly encouraged — to change the behaviours that inspired them.

    January 3, 2009 at 20:46
  • Amy Stephen

    Understood. It’s a good piece, Alan.

    Louis once said, during the initial GPL talks, “We are geeks, we come in peace.”

    I think those words capture how most free software developers feel and how we live and how we want to live. Developers have a number of reasons for contributing code, but seldom is “getting tough” when it comes to asserting upon one’s rights a motivation to do so.

    I think even Barrie can appreciate that. He contacted me a couple of weeks ago to have me to change the name of a template that will be offered under the GPL. The template included a word – “Simplicity” – that he and his partner used a couple of years ago and he told me he considered the name copyrighted. It felt a bit threatening.

    Now, I could have been difficult and challenged him. I know the name is not in any sense copyrighted and has not been trademarked. To be honest, I was a bit put out. But, out of consideration for his request, and out of respect for his partner, I did so.

    Somehow, I think, and I could be wrong on this, but if Barrie contributed GPL’d code to the project, he might find his perspective changed. Nearly 50 years of living tells me, time and time, again, walking a mile in someone’s shoes does change perspective.

    Communities are founded on respect, collaboration, and cooperation. I have room to grow in these areas, as does everyone else. But, I’m working on it.

    January 3, 2009 at 22:00
  • Alan

    As a developer, I intimately understand the trepidation that comes with embracing the GPL. It literally means taking the results of one of my most valuable skills and giving it away. It means subjecting my developer ego to external review by hundreds of other developers, some of whom are bound to be better at it than I am in one way or another. It means abandoning a very reliable business model for one based on service, support, and systems integration. All these other models have lower barriers to entry than writing code does, so the potential for competition is higher, as is the requirement to perform.

    I don’t consider myself to be a GPL “evangelist” or “fanatic”. Before Joomla made its position on the GPL clear, I had every intention of selling proprietary extensions. At the time I looked for interpretations of the GPL (such as the “Joomla is an API” argument) that would let me continue along the proprietary path, in but objectivity I found all those arguments weak at best and transparently self-serving at worst. Faced with finding another platform or changing my model, I changed the model.

    I also write heaps of proprietary (non-Joomla) code and don’t see that changing any time soon.

    I agree with your sentiments when it comes to a strong and cooperative community. I do not advocate a legal approach to ensuring GPL compliance; I am as sympathetic as anyone to the struggles of small development shops and anything involving the word “lawyer” just means sucking resources out of a system that has few resources to spare. The only real tool I have is rhetoric, so I choose to use it with the greatest force I can muster.

    It is my hope that my strong language will encourage developers of non-GPL extensions to stop and consider their strategies. Maybe some will realize that using an incompatible model isn’t harmless, that it violates the intentions of people like me who contribute considerable effort to the project. I don’t think that they’re “bad people”. Quite to the contrary, for the most part they seem to be good-natured and rational people. I do think that their reasoning is flawed. If their approach changed and they wanted to become GPL compliant and contribute to the project, I would welcome them, and be happy to work with them.

    Joomla has incredible potential and a fantastic future ahead of it, and I believe these things are a direct result of the provisions of the GPL. By continuing to attract people who believe in these values, and people who can find a way to be commercially successful in while complying with it’s constraints, we can all prosper while giving users the freedom that they deserve.

    January 3, 2009 at 22:42
  • Barrie North

    I felt my email was quite polite Amy…

    You had a Joomla template with an identical name to a Joomla template that was copyrighted by us, and still in common use.

    I am not sure why you would have considered being difficult and breaking copyright law???

    January 5, 2009 at 14:39
  • Alan


    The issue is one of copyright versus trademark. If the template itself was derived form your template, and if the template was not covered by a license like the GPL, then it would indeed have been a copyright issue. If the template was developed independently and given the same name, then the applicability of copyright is quite limited. Trying to assert copyright over a single word just doesn’t work, as far as I know (I am not a lawyer).

    If you had a trade mark on “Simplicity” It would certainly be limited to the scope “when used to refer to a Joomla template”, as I’m sure the word is trademarked for other product classes. In fact, obtaining a trademark in the first place might be quite a challenge for exactly that reason.

    At any rate, my point is that it’s difficult to apply copyright law to trade marks, and if Amy had chosen to stick with the name, competent counsel would probably have instructed you to obtain trademark protection before attempting to get her to change.

    Nonetheless, this is at best tangential to the point she was making, which is that the spirit of the open source community is to attempt to get along with everyone, whether you completely agree with them or not.

    January 5, 2009 at 14:55

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