All this buzz about networking and conversational tools (forum, blogs, affinity trackers…) make us lose sight of a fundamental piece of the social software game: the portals.
Indeed, most of the flashy tidbits that make web 2.0 visible to the commentariat are but icing on the cake of solid, businesslike applications that get the real business of publishing and data-handling done. Those applications get called «CMS» (content management systems) or «portals» (usually when they are designed to integrate third-party modules to expand their functionality).
The CMS arena is thickly populated with a wide variety of applications with different philosophies and abilities. Smack in the sweet spot, with just enough ease of use for the almost-novice to manage and yet all the power for a rather complex web or service, is Joomla. Joomla is Open Source, and more than most: its origin is a split from a previous, more compromised effort called Mambo. Joomla has proven its worth as a multipurpose portal manager tool and community infrastructure, with full ability to exploit web 2.0 bells and whistles, and also many more, really useful, features. I just love the critter, it’s so useful and flexible. My team and myself have installed dozens.
Yet it’s in trouble. It should have arrived at version 1.5 stable a while ago, but it has been hampered by a legal and philosophical issue that is relevant beyond its world: the legal status of «derivative works» that extend such «main works» as Joomla… when the main work is GNU Open Source.
Open Source in an open ecology
In a time when so many applications take advantage of open source components, and so many open source applications make up the foundation of business, there has been a lot of talk about how to integrate (and sell together) bundles of proprietary and open software. But this is a new twist. When a large part of the functionality (from pagination to user management to database access to…) is provided by a GNU-licensed application, and a plug-in can’t work by itself (and is thus called a «derivative work»), Joomla’s management, lawyers and sponsors have concluded that the «derivative work» should be open source GNU too.
Of course, if the work is substantial enough, they admit it may not be fair to call it «derivative» and thus should be licensable as one may wish (proprietary, in other words)… but still, they reccomend getting legal counsel to be sure.
Joomla has stated that it won’t be suing apparent infractors, but it will be putting pressure on the community (of developers) to GNU-license their add-ons: modules, plugins, even components, many of which are applications in their own right. They’re keeping the consultation open, but many of those developers are worried indeed.
The problem is real. Many of the features that make Joomla useful for a particular project (beyond a plain web portal) are component-based. Some, indeed few, of those components are not open source nor free. And they’re not free because they’re substantive work that lacks equivalent competitors. They get done because they can be sold.
More sensible than it seems
The GNU-licensing problem does not affect custom-built code. You can charge for a custom-built component, and not distribute it at all. But if you do distribute it, it is understood that (unless it’s so substative it’s not «derivative») it should be distributed as open source with a GNU license.
How many components will the community lose? It’s debatable. Those serious enough will probably decide they are not «derivative», but there’s justified fear than a few may directly drop Joomla support and turn to the estranged sibling, Mambo (currently branching significantly away from the Joomla code), or even other CMSs.
Will it affect developers? Hardly. Most of their Joomla work is custom: either custom development, or customization. It does not come under the scope of the licensing policy since it’s never licensed as a finalised, packaged piece of code. That is only done by a tiny percentage of developers.
So why the hooplah? Because those very few non-free, non-GNU components are the very top of the crew. They transform Joomla into a full competitor of products by large players. Some allow for full-blown magazines, or business directories, or support centers. But most of those small developers are not likely to fork out serious money for solid legal advice… and if they don’t feel safe, they may bolt. And they may, because their work is substantial: it does not require Joomla (it could run on Mambo, and it could be modified for others).
That is not the most feared consequence. The real problem is that, in order to charge for their work, leading-edge developers of high-value components may not distribute their work at all. They would make a handsome living with custom installations, but the price of those (since they’d be fewer due to lack of time) would push those functionalities beyond the reach of the wider community… which is used to paying nothing for their software.
All in all, it’s a pretty interesting situation. It will probably encourage the drawing of sensible and clear lines between what is «derivative» and what is not. It will standarise a way of licensing derivative work in a very relevant (for web development) field. And it will provide a real-world, no-holds-barred-and-no-lines-smudged test for the viability of such a hybrid ecosystem.
Either Joomla thrives (and changes the world a little bit more), or it sinks.