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In the Wix vs. WordPress fight, impressions matter

Graphic: Lawton Digital Marketing

Matt Mullenweg, the originator of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, is fighting with Avishai Abrahami, CEO of Wix. (Both companies make it easy to build web content.) The question driving this fight is the appropriate use of open source code. But what’s really at stake is reputation — and on that front, Abrahami’s wry commentary scores points counter to Mullenweg’s angry accusation.

Here’s what’s at the heart of the dispute.

WordPress is by far the most popular blogging software (for example, my site runs on it), and it’s open source. The open source license for it is the Gnu GPL (General Public License), which specifies that if you use GPL Open Source code, then what you create has to be open source with the same license. Wix used some open source code in its mobile app, and Mullenweg’s complaint is that Wix isn’t obeying the open source rules. While this sounds like a highly technical dispute, these are two of the most prominent companies powering Web sites, and engineers take open source questions seriously.

Mullenweg’s WordPress post fires the first angry shot

Mullenweg and Abrahami conducted their argument on blogs, of course. Both have an edge, and both use sarcasm and humor to make their points. Let’s start with WordPress’s Mullenweg, who fired first. Here are some excerpts from his post:

The Wix Mobile App, a WordPress Joint

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to try new things — phones, gadgets, apps. Last week I downloaded the new Wix (closed, proprietary, non-open-sourced, non-GPL) mobile app. I’m always interested to see how others tackle the challenge of building and editing websites from a mobile device.

I started playing around with the editor, and felt… déjà vu. It was familiar. Like I had used it before.

Turns out I had. Because it’s WordPress.

If I were being charitable, I’d say, “The app’s editor is based on the WordPress mobile app’s editor.” If I were being honest, I’d say that Wix copied WordPress without attribution, credit, or following the license. The custom icons, the class names, even the bugs. . . .  Wix has always borrowed liberally from WordPress — including their company name, which used to be Wixpress Ltd. — but this blatant rip-off and code theft is beyond anything I’ve seen before from a competitor. . . .

This explicitly contravenes the GPL, which requires attribution and a corresponding GPL license on whatever you release publicly built on top of GPL code. The GPL is what has allowed WordPress to flourish, and that let us create this code. Your app’s editor is built with stolen code, so your whole app is now in violation of the license.

I suppose we’ll take this as a compliment — I’m sure the hundreds of people who have contributed to WordPress Core and our mobile apps are flattered that you chose to build one of your company’s core features using our code. We’re also excited to see what great things you create with all the time you saved not having to write your own mobile editor.

You know what’d be even more exciting? To see you abide by the GPL and release your source code back to the community that gave you that jump start.

This is a without-bullshit statement, clear as can be. No passive voice here! With words like “it’s WordPress,” “without attribution, credit,” “blatant rip-off,” and “theft,” Mullenweg’s post is 100% accusation. The title claims a rip-off, and it goes on from there.

Abrahami fights back with humor

How does Wix’s CEO respond? With an edge — but with a smile as well. Some excerpts from Abrahami’s post:

Dear Matt Mullenweg: an open letter from Wix.com’s CEO Avishai Abrahami

Dear Matt,

We were all very surprised by your post, as you have so many claims against us.

Wow, dude I did not even know we were fighting.

First, you say we have been taking from the open source community without giving back, well, of course, that isn’t true. Here is a list of 224 projects on our public GitHub page, and as you can see they are all dated before your post. We have not checked if WordPress is using them, but you are more than welcome to do so, some of them are pretty good.

We always shared and admired your commitment to give back, which is exactly why we have those 224 open source projects, and thousands more bugs/improvements available to the open source community and we will release the app you saw as well.

Next, you talk about the Wix App being stolen from WordPress. There are more than 3 million lines of code in the Wix application, notably the hotels/blogs/chat/eCommerce/scheduling/booking is all our code.

Yes, we did use the WordPress open source library for a minor part of the application (that is the concept of open source right?), and everything we improved there or modified, we submitted back as open source, see here in this link – you should check it out, pretty cool way of using it on mobile native. I really think you guys can use it with your app (and it is open source, so you are welcome to use it for free). And, by the way, the part that we used was in fact developed by another and modified by you. . . .

If you believe that we need to give you credit, that you deserve credit, I must say, absolutely yes. You guys deserve a lot of credit, but not because of a few lines of source code, you deserve credit because you guys have been making the internet dramatically better, and for that we at Wix are big fans. We love what you have been trying to do, and are working very hard to add our own contribution to make the internet better.

If you need source code that we have, and we have not yet released, then, most likely we will be happy to share, you only need to ask. We share your belief that making the internet better, is best for everyone.

This is a completely different tone . . . one of “hey, we’re all friends here, and we’re trying to be good open source citizens.”

The truth and the impression

Who’s right here?

The GPL specifies that if you modify a piece of open source code, you have to release the modification. Abrahami says they did that by releasing the modifications to the mobile editor, which was the open source module they used. Mullenweg says they have to release the source code for the whole app.

I’m no open source wizard, but I think Mullenweg has a point. Mullenweg’s company, Automattic, is based completely on open source principles, so to them this feels like a rip-off. Abrahami’s company, Wix, is not. Even so, according to this tweet, it now appears that Wix will release the source code for the app.

But let’s look at the impression these executives have left.

Mullenweg now appears as a fierce defender of open source, but an angry and mean one. Nobody’s likely to mess him after this, but if you plan to work with him, you probably won’t be very trusting.

Abrahami comes off as part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, returning accusations with humor and making his points with a smile. He seems a lot more like somebody you could work with even if you disagree about something.

I don’t know these two people, but that’s the point. I’ve now learned about them through their writing, and they’ve left an impression.

When you write — whether the audience is coders, users, or the general public — tone matters. Making your points is important. But what people think of you afterwards is important, too. No matter who’s hurt you, accusations and sarcasm don’t leave much room for a future that you and your antagonists need to live in together.

I’m prepared for all the coders who will respond to this with “the facts are the only things that matter.” If that’s you . . . I agree, facts matter. But in the real world, impressions matter too. This is worth learning.

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  1. Great post! I’m curious, what other approach you think Mullenweg could have made in his post? I’d love to see you imagine an alternative communication. It seems like it’s much easier for the “defender” to turn on the charm, but I expect it’s trickier for the “accuser” to make his point effectively while still being friendly.

    1. Great question, Isabelle.

      Mulllenweg could have raised all the same issues, but without using words like “theft.” If the title of the post was “breaking the free software rules is not ok,” it could have included the same facts without the attacks.

  2. In the spirit of credit-where-credit-is due, I should fully disclose that I read every one of your blog posts, and I probably forward at least 25% of them to my students. Am I making myself look like a better writing teacher by building on your work? Or am I making the world a better place for readers and writers? Probably a healthy helping of both! Thanks for another fun, useful, interesting, informative blog!

  3. What really ticked me off about Mullenweg’s blast was there was no indication of whether he tried to confirm his facts (i.e.: hey-guys-what’s-going-on-here email to WIX) before sperging publicly. If he didn’t, he was foolish. If he did and got a bad or no reply, it bolsters his argument.