At WordCamp Boston this past weekend there was a great Ignite talk session. The last Ignite speaker was Jane Wells of Automattic, Inc., the WordPress.com folks. She told us in 5 minutes and 20 slides with nary a breath, about the new WordPress Foundation founded as a charitable organization by Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress. I think this is a great thing. A Foundation serves a number of valuable purposes for a FOSS project:
- Protector of the code, if the Foundation owns the copyright and accepts contributions through a contribution agreement.
- Protector of the other IP including patents (but what self respecting FOSS project would own software patents?) and trademarks.
- Sponsor and participant for standardization efforts that dovetail with the project.
- Center of gravity for donations and common community resources such as developer grant programs, legal defense, and project infrastructure.
- Chief cheerleader and promoter, sponsoring events, providing spokespeople, establishing training and certification, and generally making positive noise about the project.
The WordPress Foundation is going to do a lot of this. They’ll own and license the trademark and logo, and sponsor WordCamps and other events. The rationale on the “About” page is surprising, however:
“The point of the foundation is to ensure free access, in perpetuity, to the projects we support. People and businesses may come and go, so it is important to ensure that the source code for these projects will survive beyond the current contributor base, that we may create a stable platform for web publishing for generations to come.”
What is interesting here is the claim that the Foundation will protect the code – presumably against the potential for ravaging by some evil corporation that might acquire the rights to the code base in an acquisition. Need an example? We just saw a nine-month standoff between the European Commission and Oracle over the Sun/Oracle merger and its potential to harm competition from MySQL in the database market. The EC determined ultimately that this merger was not anti-competitive, and it closed earlier today.
So who owns the copyright on WordPress? I asked Matt Mullenweg in a blog comment about this. His reply:
“Copyright is maintained by the original contributors of code, and licensed under the license of WordPress. (Which makes it highly unlikely we will ever change licenses.)”
So, WordPress is not like MySQL. With a code base that is owned by many authors, there is little danger of falling prey to an entity bent on harming the project or community. There is no way for a corporation to gain such control, when they’d have to find all those authors and negotiate copyright assignments with all of them. As Matt says, this also means that WordPress will forever be a GPL v2 project as there is no practical way to re-license the entire body of code.
The WordPress Foundation serves another purpose: it declares to the world that this project is ultimately owned by the community. Not just the code, but the trademark, the PR voice, and all the rest. Why does that matter?