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GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

By Tina Gasperson on June 20, 2007 (4:20:47 AM)

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Joomla! project leader Louis Landry and his colleagues want to protect the project they love. That's why, after two years of allowing proprietary plugins for the open source CMS, the group has decided to ask third-party developers for voluntary compliance with the terms of the GNU General Public License, under which Joomla! is licensed. Those developers are complaining that it's unfair for Joomla! to reverse its position after "a bunch of companies spent millions," according to one developer employed by a company that markets the proprietary extensions. Landry says he and the Joomla! team were wrong to have allowed the exceptions, and a return to compliance is essential in order to legally protect the open nature of Joomla!.

Joomla! was born in 2005 as a fork from the Mambo CMS. The entire core development team, as well as many of the third-party developers, left the Mambo community because they believed that Miro, the corporation behind Mambo, was planning to close the code on the project. The developers formed Open Source Matters (OSM), a nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of supporting and protecting Joomla!. OSM secured the services of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) to help it navigate the muddy waters of running a free software project, especially one as wary of legal claims from its previous parent company as Joomla!.

"They asked us to help them manage the split," says James Vasile, counsel for SFLC. "We did that, making sure all the legal bases were covered. There were some rumblings about the Mambo split [possibly] not working, and Mambo having legal claims on the code. We settled all that for them."

In addition to the code base, one of the things the Joomla! core development team brought with it from Mambo was a tolerance for non-GPL compliant extensions. Many third-party developers believe that tolerance is part of what makes Joomla! so popular. In an open letter to the Joomla! core team, the Joomla Commercial Developer's Alliance (JCDA), wrote, "It is widely agreed among the Joomla! community that the vast number of extensions that are available for Joomla! has helped to establish Joomla! as a winning formula across the internet as a stable, functional and feature filled platform to build websites upon."

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."

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. As the Joomla! project continued to move toward the 1.5 release, team members decided to ask Vasile whether the GPL really did allow non-free add-ons.

"Every couple of months they try to improve the process a bit," Vasile says. "One of the things we talked about was increasing the rate of GPL compliance in their community." He says the Joomla! core team came to realize they had a "GPL problem" but weren't sure what to do about it. "I laid out their range of options and they realized that they needed to move" in the direction of a voluntary compliance effort. "Along the way, they were hoping to teach people about what it takes to comply." Vasile says the Joomla! core developers came to the project with a less than full understanding of the GPL, but "at this point, the team understands quite well. I've tried to give them guidance, but most have done their own research."

Some of the third-party developers marketing the extensions are angry because they believe Joomla! is trying to force them to release their source code under the GPL. "They said their announcement was the beginning of the discussion," says Merav Knafo, the owner of iJoomla, a development company that sells proprietary extensions to Joomla!. "But to us, it sounded like the end of the discussion." Knafo maintains that there was a written rider allowing the non-GPL extensions attached to the Joomla! license and published at the Web site, but that the core team recently removed it without telling anyone. "They're making us do something illegal now without even knowing about it. The way for them to fix it would be to put the rider back."

Vasile says no version of Joomla! "has ever gone out with a rider."

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."

Regardless, Knafo is vehemently against the idea of re-licensing her extensions. "We will never release our software as GPL, never!" She says the core team doesn't understand what it is asking of the third-party developers. "The Joomla! core developers are very young. They don't have a lot of real life experience. They don't understand how things work in the real world. If you don't compensate people in the real world, they're not going to do it."

Knafo says she and other third-party developers are looking at all their options. "There are many thoughts about creating a fork that's friendly to commercial developers," she says. "Then there will be Joomla!, with lots of free extensions but no commercial ones, and a fork that has support for commercial extensions. This could be really bad for Joomla!. If they leave us no choice, we will do that. We have already put so much effort into this, and we want to keep doing business."

Landry says he understands that the developers are worried by the impending changes, and he sympathizes. "That's one of the reasons why we said this is going to be a long and slow road. We're not overnight saying you have to completely change. We're not coming after [them]." He laments what he says is the extreme reaction Joomla! has received from the third-party developers. "A lot of these people are our friends. It's been really shocking to see some of the really nasty language and the rough communications come out of some of them. To be honest, I'm not really clear on why they feel so threatened. It disturbs me that people all of a sudden feel like we're in an attacking posture. One of the things I have reiterated is that we are completely a peaceful project. We're not going after anybody -- we're asking nicely for voluntary compliance so that all of us can protect the project we all know and love. I can't make it any more clear than that."

Tina Gasperson writes about business and technology from an open source perspective.

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on GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

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GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

Posted by: Randall Burt on June 20, 2007 04:37 PM

I'm not sure why this is such a sticky issue. There are many options available to the Joomla! developers that aren't as disruptive as this article makes it sound. The simplest solution would be to re-license under the Lesser GNU Public License. LGPL was created for the very situation these folks find themselves in. From my understanding of it, it will protect the core Joomla! code from proprietary forking while allowing folks to create third party extensions under their own licenses. I'm not sure what this "rider" exception was, but it would be unnecessary under LGPL (IANAL, but this is my understanding after looking in to such things for several years now).

As for the option of "forking" Joomla! with a version that is "friendly to commercial developers", I don't think this can be done legally under the GPL. If you got the code under GPL, your fork is GPL. Plain and simple, no argument to make.

Joomla! is a decent and popular product. While I don't personally have a lot of sympathy for folks with non-free licenses, I do agree that their software has contributed significantly to the popularity of Joomla!. I don't agree, however, that this needs to be a crisis that calls the future viability of the Joomla! platform into question.


Re: GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

Posted by: Seo Sanghyeon on June 21, 2007 03:27 AM
You suggested Joomla! developers to re-license under LGPL. Well, they can't. As the article clearly states, Joomla! is a Mambo fork and Mambo is under GPL. If you got the code under GPL your fork is GPL plain and simple...


There are other growth problems as well

Posted by: Michael Shigorin on June 20, 2007 10:06 PM
Last year I've done a bit of research for somewhat more informed packtpub award opinion, and Joomla! wasn't exactly shining on security front, too.

I don't want to sort of dismiss it but frankly, we didn't seriously consider that for several projects, both community and in-house corporate sites and then a few commercial works as well. eZ Publish was finally dropped due to similar concerns of as with Mamba/Miro (later it has proved somewhat correct, a site or two were hard to maintain). <a href=>Drupal</a> was runner-up -- and a solid one -- but among non-exotic CMS/CMF systems we've settled with <a href=>TYPO3</a> and while it can deliver quite a bit of frustration at times, the overall result one can achieve is simply not done with the rest of the block.

So most of the time we're just happy with it, be it core/extension upgrades, new functionality being deployed or new content being added or translated.

I wish Joomla well on both of these fronts but for those who don't really want to sit down and wait, look at these two: e.g. Mambo's gonna run forever behind TYPO3, what they've planned for 5.0 was in 3.8 here years ago. Yep, forks and delayed licensing cleanups don't help much either.


Re: There are other growth problems as well

Posted by: Lynne Pope on June 28, 2007 04:58 AM
By "Mamba/Miro" I assume you are making uninformed comment about Mambo - yes?
Mambo has been independent of Miro International since 2005. The company even ceased to exist in 2005.


Stop press: Online petition requests policy reversal

Posted by: Mike Lloyd on June 20, 2007 10:59 PM
Hi Tina
Thanks for a well researched and informative article. You might like to know that there is now an online petition which Joomla users can sign to request the Joomla Core/OSM to reverse the decision - the comments make interesting reading.

It's at:

Best regards
Mike Lloyd


GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

Posted by: Randall Burt on June 21, 2007 06:52 PM
Whoops. Then they are well and truely buggered, then.


Re: GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

Posted by: Daniel J. Givens on June 22, 2007 04:24 AM
Although the Nvidia and ATI binary blob approach has been called into question, it is less onerous than this situation, as far as compliance goes. I think the solution of an abstraction layer that is GPL used to interface GPL and non-GPL code is a very viable solution for these third party developers that feel the need to keep their code private. I have not paid much attention to the drafts of GPLv3, but I wonder if this "workaround" will be affected by new language.

In general, it seems that the developers that are making the biggest fuss over this are showing an expectation of entitlement from Open Source Matters, Inc. If OSM was not compliant with the GPL and changes their stance, that is their prerogative as the copyright holder. The third party developers do not hold any claim to Joomla, yet they are making out like OSM and the Joomla community owes it to them to allow them to continue to make money off the backs of OSM, the community, and the contributors of free code Joomla is made up of.



Posted by: Hayden Young on June 22, 2007 12:35 AM
I'm a Joomla! 3rd party developer and, while I support OSS over closed source any day, I fail to see how proprietary components released separately from the core can be in violation of the GPL. If these proprietary extensions were integrated into the core and redistributed then there would clearly be a problem, but installing independently distributed closed source components, that consumers choose to install is not a violation. There seems to be a general failure to differentiate between source code development (copyright) and the redistribution of GPL and non-GPL code (licensing).


Re: Misinformation?

Posted by: Daniel J. Givens on June 22, 2007 04:16 AM
If you look at the Free Software Foundations stance on what a derivative work, by extending Joomla's classes and making direct function calls into its API, the extension is a derivative work. The Lesser GNU Public License can be used by libraries and classes to allow non-free software to utilize them without being required to be licensed the same way. The GPL though, requires this. The question at hand is whether or not copyright laws support this claim, and that is something that is case by case and localized country by country. There is a great deal of ambiguity here, but by the traditional interpretation and the original spirit of the GPL, the 3rd party extensions licensed by a non-GPL compatible license is in violation of GPL.


GPL compliance issues are tearing Joomla! apart

Posted by: Lynne Pope on June 28, 2007 05:15 AM
Tina, please correct the link you have given for the Mambo CMS. That link would have been correct had this article been published in 2005 however the world, and Mambo has moved on since those days.
The Mambo CMS is at <a href=""></a> The former home of Mambo, which spawned Joomla, is no longer associated in any way with the Mambo CMS project.

I would also like to correct an impression your article gives. Mambo is in no way tolerant of non-GPL compliant extensions. Mambo does not, however, assume that all extensions must necessarily be either derived works or in breach of the GPL.

The statement on the Mambo forums (<a href=""></a>) makes it clear what is permitted by the Mambo Foundation in respect to their enforcement of their copyright license.

"It is up to each copyright holder to decide how they will enforce the licence for their code. Mambo has always been licensed under the GPL and the Mambo Licensing Guidelines set out the Foundation's position with respect to enforcement of the licence over its code.

To the extent Mambo includes code owned by other licensors, it is a matter for those licensors as to how they will enforce their licence. Third party developers should therefore always obtain their own legal advice as to whether their licensing model is appropriate given the way that their software interacts with Mambo or other software licensed by third parties.

It is our opinion that use of Mambo interfaces does not make “derived works” per se. Function calls to the Mambo API do not, in themselves, create derived works. This is the Mambo Foundation's position in relation to the use of Mambo code. Please note that other licensors may have a different position.

A court will ultimately have to decide the issue should another licensor seek to enforce its interpretation of the GPL on its licensees.

You can read the Licensing Guidelines in the legal section of the Mambo Foundation's website here: <a href=" "> </a>"


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