Wix WordPress GPL issue

Over the weekend, WordPress co-creator Matt Mullenweg called out Wix for using some of WordPress’ Open Source, GPL-licensed code in an improper fashion in their new mobile app; and also for ripping off the WordPress brand by calling Wix “WixPress.”

Here’s Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami’s response, and here’s why it’s problematic:

Wix should have provided GPL attribution

Matt said Wix should have provided proper attribution to WordPress for the code used in the mobile app. Abrahami does not address this. Yes, Wix has released over 200 Open Source projects on Github, but doing a good thing doesn’t reconcile doing a not-good thing. If the license says they need to provide attribution, they should address that specific issue for this specific piece of software.

GPL means public release of software

Matt states that if a piece of software includes any components from other GPL software, that makes the whole new piece of software GPL and it should therefore be made public if distributed (which the mobile app was). This is indeed the case, and it is not addressed in Abrahami’s response. Releasing partial components on Github is not enough.

Wix WAS called Wixpress in the past

Matt refers to Wix having ripped off WordPress’ brand by calling themselves Wixpress. I did a quick Google search for “Wixpress Ltd.” and lo and behold, Wix started out as Wixpress. Press releases were filed under the Wixpress name, and the official company name listed in the filing on  the stock exchange is Wixpress Ltd. It is noted in the document that they changed their business name in the US (and after checking the Israeli business registry, it was also changed here), and are now called Wix.com Ltd. Their Brazilian subsidiary is still referred to as Wixpress in the filing. None of us know them as Wixpress, so they seem to have smartly shifted away from that brand early on. In fact, while they initially filed for a trademark for this name, they abandoned it in 2010 which indicates they weren’t invested in that name. But the bottom line is, Wixpress is part of their legacy. Why did Abrahami deny that when we all know how to use Google? A more straightforward response would have been “Yeah, in the beginning we made a mistake with our brand, and if you ask anyone what Wixpress is, they probably won’t know since we abandoned that early on in favor of Wix.com”

The tone of Wix’s response is…unsettling

There’s something about Abrahami’s tone in his email that irks me.

Maybe it’s how he calls Matt “dude” and says “I didn’t know we were fighting”. You’re not fighting so don’t make it into a fight: Matt wants you to do what he thinks is right.

Maybe it’s how he tries to deflect accusations of brand-stealing by saying that WordPress has shifted from being only about blogs to being about websites too – I mean, what? Is he saying that Wix has sole ownership of the website-building space and Automattic stole that from them? A company is allowed to expand its focus for goodness sake.

Maybe it’s how he invites Matt to coffee, which is a poor reading of a serious situation. If you think someone ripped off your stuff, you may not feel like getting together with them for coffee…probably more like a court of law.

Also, why didn’t he link to Matt’s original post?! That’s a rhetorical question, but it looks shady. I think it would have been better for the company to have publicized the response by the engineer responsible for the mobile app that Abrahami links to in his post. It addresses the issues in a less…um…passive-aggressive dude-filled way and he shows how he tried to collaborate and share with Automattic’s engineering team. It still doesn’t provide satisfactory answers to the issues at hand, but it’s easier to digest.

Bottom line: lessons to be learned

  1. If you are a commercial company, think a bajillion times before using Open Source code in your proprietary software. Licensing is not only an ethical issue, but can also cause problems down the line if unreported and discovered during due diligence. Here’s a good article on this subject:
    https://twitter.com/stratticweb/status/790832690287087616. It also seems that the Apple Store does not allow GPL code-based apps since the app store’s protections negate the GPL license. So yikes.
  2. Don’t respond to issues immediately, and especially not over the weekend. Matt posted on Friday, and Abrahami posted on Saturday. People are taking a break over the weekend, there’s no rush! It seems that Abrahami wrote in the heat of the moment. He probably should have first had his legal team review the situation, and if necessary, apologize, remove the app from the app store, remove the GPL code and re-release it; OR keep the GPL code, add attribution, and publicly distribute it. In general, your legal/PR/marketing team isn’t working at full capacity on Saturday/Shabbat, so wait until they get to work, review the issues calmly, and then respond. No one’s going anywhere.
  3. Make sure you have people on your team who understand the nuances of other cultures. What’s interesting is that many of my Israeli Facebook hi-tech friends are commending Abrahami on his post. As a grew-up-in-Canada person, I’m cringing when I read it, and I’m not the only one. If you are a non-American company, make sure you have an Anglo on your PR team who has a better grasp of what kinds of tones and intonations work well outside of Israel. We Israelis have a very direct way of communicating, and while that can be great at times, it’s definitely not always great.

Look, Matt’s approach to GPL can come across as zealous. And the GPL has never been tried in an American court of law, so it’s not clear that Matt is right about everything in this case (or other cases). And it’s also possible that Wix made an innocent mistake. Open Source licensing can be confusing and unclear. I’m sure there’s a way to resolve this quickly and painlessly. In the future though, all hi-tech companies should strive to increase awareness of what Open Source means, have decent legal counsel, and a good PR team that reacts thoughtfully to branding and legal crises.

Also published on Medium.