These are my views and I encourage you to dispute them.
Not everyone has been in the loop on this issue, so a recap is in order. First, back when Brandon was developing add-ons as a hobby he released several add-ons for free. One of these was the very popular FieldFrame extension, which allows you to easily create and install custom fieldtypes for ExpressionEngine. FieldFrame was released with a Creative Commons license. Along with this, Brandon began bundling FF Matrix, which is a fieldtype that allows you to create a, well, matrix of data.
Fast forward to 2010 and Brandon is in the early days of running his own business; he is earning all of his income only from the EE add-ons he builds.
At the end of February Brandon re-launched as Pixel and Tonic. One part of this launch was the “parting of ways” of FieldFrame and FF Matrix. Brandon noted the reason for this was because FF Matrix took up a lot of his time for support and, well, you can’t really earn a living spending your time supporting something that is free. Economics, math and all that.
to the Rescue
Before it became a commercial fieldtype, FF Matrix was still under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
This license allows one to share the code (“to copy, distribute and transmit…”) or to adapt it (“remix”). You are required to give attribution as specified by the original licensor (Brandon Kelly) and if you share your version of the work, you have to use a “similar or compatible license.”
This license is clearly stated at the top of the FF Matrix fieldtype file (
ft.ff_matrix.php), so the intent is obviously there.
So today, EE Matrix popped up. It is a re-release of the free version of FF Matrix (Brandon pulled public access to FF Matrix when he launched his new company). Alex Gordon is the person behind the re-release or “fork” of FF Matrix and stated in an announcement post on his blog his motivation:
Now the new version of FF Matrix is commercial, which is really sad.
So I’ve decided to improve the situation. The distribution of FF Matrix with Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 licenses up to the version 1.3.5 ensures the right of distributing this version respecting license rules. You can always download the original version 1.3.5 from here. Besides, I’ve decided to create the fork with the same license and support and develop it for free.
So, Alex is offering FF Matrix as a free download to anyone who wants it. He made no indication that he planned to charge for it, which would be a violation of the Creative Commons license.
From my read of the Creative Commons license and what Alex did, it seems he is legally on solid ground (as legal as you can be using Creative Commons. I couldn’t find an actual test of the license in a US court).
But is Alex Gordon keeping within the spirit of the license that Brandon set for FF Matrix? That’s where it gets tricky.
Creative Commons Revisited
Each CC license has a set of understandings. You can look at these like the fine print of an agreement. One of the understandings is that the license would not affect the “author’s moral rights.” In the full legalese copy of the license it states:
You must not distort, mutilate, modify or take other derogatory action in relation to the Work which would be prejudicial to the Original Author’s honor or reputation.
I don’t think this is being violated here. If the add-on was renamed something derogatory or somehow impacted Brandon’s other products, then, yeah, I could see it being an issue.
So, technically, Alex Gordon is in the clear. But this isn’t really about that, is it?
Let’s go back to Alex’s original statement:
This whole extension used to be free… till the end of February.
Now the new version of FF Matrix is commercial, which is really sad.
Although he later claims that he plans to continue developing the add-on for free, the spirit of his decision to re-release FF Matrix appears to be to keep it free, not to improve it. He seems to be upset that Brandon slapped a $35 price sticker on FF Matrix.
To me, this violates the spirit of the license. But even more importantly, it violates the spirit of the community.
It sounds like a cliche front-loaded with bullshit, but one of the greatest things about ExpressionEngine is the community.
The people who use ExpressionEngine have a lot of professional respect for each other. This is fostered by EllisLab, who shows a lot of respect and support to all of the EE professionals (myself included).
The EE forums are full of people helping each other. It’s where we all cut our teeth when we first started using the software. We all know how important the community was when we were getting started. This remains true each and every day as the community slowly grows.
Beyond that there is also a solid embrace of the “EE economy.” Unlike other CMS communities where everyone wants (or demands) everything built for the CMS to be free, we actively support and grow the EE economy with our money.
We’ve seen this with several add-on developers earning significant revenue from their add-ons. We’ve also seen this with education and training materials, like books, screencasts, classroom training and even our very own conference.
By investing in our own community, we help ourselves build better sites, get bigger clients and serve Filet Mignon on Fridays instead of frozen pizza.
When Alex Gordon took FF Matrix and made it free again, he may not have violated any licenses or laws but he certainly violated the trust of a community that puts a lot of value in supporting the people that build the stuff that makes EE so much better than other content management systems.
And with that I have a real problem.
What We Learned
Today was a nice exhibit of community support for Brandon, Pixel and Tonic and the work he does. It was a loud “thank you” for all of the free stuff Brandon built that we all benefited from (and still do with FieldFrame). The most outspoken members of the community came to Brandon’s defense and offered their opinion of what Alex Gordon did by re-releasing FF Matrix.
We also learned that you have to be careful about what license you use when you release your software. Right now you may have no intention of ever selling your add-on commercially, but slapping a free-for-all license on it may come back and bite you. So, be careful.
Finally, Brandon shouldn’t worry about this. He’s successful because he puts a lot of work and care into his add-ons—even the free stuff. People that do excellent work will find the support of—and be rewarded by—the community.
Add-on developers that create the most useful, user-friendly software will almost always win out. Anyone who values their own time (not to mention that of their clients) would rather shell out $50 for the well-designed add-on than use a free version that has a horrible user experience.