An opportunity to understand the GPL license

Featured image: Matt Mullenweg, 2009. Credit: loiclemeur/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Every December, I wander over to, the blog of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, to check what he’s saying about how the CMS will be shaping up in the next year. Despite my cribbings as well as constant yearning to be on Ghost, I’m still on WordPress and no closer to leaving than I ever was. And WordPress isn’t all that bad either (it runs The Wire, for example). In fact, I’m reminded of the words of a very talented developer from earlier this year with whom we at The Wire were consulting. When I brought up the fact that PHP (the programming language on which WordPress is a script) isn’t very conducive to scaling, he replied, “Anything can be built on anything.” So, for all its problems, WordPress does do some other things well that other CMSs might usually struggle with.

Anyway, lest I digress further – On a post on October 28, Mullenweg described the impact of the GPL license on WordPress’s development as “fantastic” – possibly because, as Linus Torvalds, who created the Linux kernel, has noted, the GPL license enforces itself: code derived from GPL-licensed code also has to be GPL-licensed. As a result, those making modifications to WordPress for their own use could not wall themselves off, preventing fragmentation as well as, in the words of University of Pennsylvania law professor Christopher Yoo, persevere in an environment that allows “multiple actors to pursue parallel innovation, which can improve the quality of the technical solution as well as increase the rate of technological change”.

GPL stands for ‘general public license’, and is widely used on the creation, modification, deconstruction, use and distribution of software on the web. Mullenweg’s broader post was actually about him noticing how the UI of the mobile app of Wix, a platform that lets its users build websites with a few clicks, closely resembled WordPress’s own, and how there was – as a result – a glaring problem. In its composition, WordPress uses code that’s on the GPL. GPL’s self-enforcement feature makes it a copyleft license: works that are derived from GPL-licensed work also have to be copyleft and distributed on the same terms. As a result, the code behind Wix’s mobile app had to immediately be made available (by, say, making it available on GitHub) and publicly accessible. It wasn’t.

Last I checked, the post had one update from Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami and 120 comments. And all together, they illustrated how the terms of the license, though written in language that was lucid enough, were easy to confuse and the sort of impedance that poses to its useful implementation. I spent an hour (probably more) going through all of it; if you’re interested in this sort of thing – or learning something new – I highly recommend going through the comments yourself. Or, if you’d like something shorter (but also trying to be wider in scope), you could just keep reading.

The tale has four dramatis personae: the GPL license, the MIT license, Wix’s mobile app and WordPress’s code (plus a cameo appearance by the LGPL license). Code derived from GPL-compatible code also has to be GPL-compatible – a major requirement of which is that: “… you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs, and that you know you can do these things” (emphasis added). This is also the clause that’s missing from the MIT license. As a result, code that’s originally under the MIT license can later be licensed as GPL (i.e. its source code made available) but code that’s originally under the GPL cannot later be licensed as MIT (i.e. source code that a GPL license has made accessible cannot be hidden away by the MIT license) – unless all the relevant copyright holders are onboard with the shift.

Paul Sieminski, the general counsel of Automattic – the non-profit company that originally built WordPress – commented on Mullenweg’s post thus: “[Wix would] probably be in the clear if you had used just the original editor we started with (ZSSRichTextEditor, MIT licensed). Instead, Wix took our version of the editor which has 1000+ original commits on top of the original MIT editor, that took more than a year to write. We improved it. A lot. And Wix took those improvements, used them in their app… but then stripped out all of the important rights that they’re not legally allowed to take away. We’re just asking Wix to fix their mistake. Release the Wix Mobile App under a GPL license, and put the source code up on GitHub” (link added). So far so good.

Wix CEO Abrahami’s response – posted on his blog on Wix – though cordial, makes the mistake of being evasive and in denial at once. As many commenters pointed out, Mullenweg’s ask was simple and clearly articulated: bring the source code behind Wix’s mobile app under the GPL and upload it on GitHub. Abrahami, however, defended Wix’s decision to keep the source code proprietary by saying that it only used an open source library modified by WordPress (“that is the concept of open source right?”) for a “minor part” of the app, and that he would “release the app you [Matt] saw as well”. The latter statement should have resolved the dispute because GPL only mandates that the source code be made available when asked for – not necessarily on GitHub. George Stephanis, a developer at Automattic, added: “The source code has to be freely available to everyone that has the software. If you want a paywall, it has to treat the software and source as a unit — you can’t distribute the software, but then charge for the source code.”

Some commenters pointed out that Abrahami may have been confusing the GPL license with the Library GPL (LGPL), and as a result not be entirely clear about the “viral” nature of the GPL license. When code is LGPL-compatible, extensions to the code needn’t be GPL-compatible. For example, in the Wix case, if the WordPress-modified open-source library was LGPL-, instead of GPL-, compatible and the mobile app had used parts of it, then the app’s source code doesn’t have to be GPL-compatible. In colloquial terms, the LGPL doesn’t infect code it is associated with the way the GPL does; it is less “viral”.

Nonetheless, I’d think it’s arguably harder to know Wix’s code has to be GPL-compatible, or even to know what the license on it ought to be, if it isn’t publicly available at all times. In support: the relevant part from the license’s preamble, which I quoted earlier, is “that [the users] know [they] can do these things”. I use the word ‘arguably’ not in the legal sense but in the spiritual one – the spirit being that of the free-software movement. And this is why I’m glad Mullenweg chose to hammer this issue out in public (via his blog) instead of via email. Moreover, I’m also glad that he didn’t initiate legal action immediately either: the conversation between Mullenweg, Abrahami and all the commenters – despite the occasional passive-aggressive animus – deserved to happen instead of the groups splintering off and blocking each other. The open source community always needs more unity.

Then again, the licenses that help sustain these communities could do more harm than good if they become too restrictive – especially when they fall out of step with changing governance practices while striving to keep the open source ideals we’ve associated with Richard Stallman alive even as they don’t offer too much freedom to users, which could result in a proliferation of alternatives that deprive useful software of its coherence. For example, Yoo writes in the paper I quoted from above,

… some restrictions on what people can do with open source operating systems are necessary if consumers are to enjoy the full benefits of competition and innovation. My point is not to suggest that open source software is inherently superior to proprietary software or vice versa. Both approaches have distinct virtues that appeal to different users. Moreover, any attempt to cast the policy debate as a choice between those polar extremes [i.e. open source and modular development] is based on a false dichotomy. Instead, the different modes for producing software platforms are better regarded as occupying different locations along a continuum running from completely unrestricted open source to completely proprietary closed source. Indeed, companies may even choose to pursue hybrid strategies that occupy multiple locations on this continuum simultaneously. The diversity of advantages associated with these different approaches suggests that consumers benefit if different companies are given the latitude to experiment with different governance models, with the presence of one open source platform serving as an important competitive safety valve.

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The nomenclature of uncertainty

The headline of a Nature article published on December 9 reads ‘LIGO black hole echoes hint at general relativity breakdown’. The article is about the prediction of three scientists that, should LIGO find ‘echoes’ of gravitational waves coming from blackhole-mergers, then it could be a sign of quantum-gravity forces at play.

It’s an exciting development because it presents a simple and currently accessible way of probing the universe for signs of phenomena that show a way to unite quantum physics and general relativity – phenomena that have been traditionally understood to be outside the reach of human experiments until LIGO.

The details of the pre-print paper the three scientists uploaded on arXiv were covered by a number of outlets, including The Wire. And The Wire‘s and Forbes‘s headlines were both questions: ‘Has LIGO already discovered evidence for quantum gravity?’ and ‘Has LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong – and found signs of quantum gravity?’, respectively. Other headlines include:

  • Gravitational wave echoes might have just caused Einstein’s general theory of relativity to break down – IB Times
  • A new discovery is challenging Einstein’s theory of relativity – Futurism
  • Echoes in gravitational waves hint at a breakdown of Einstein’s general relativity – Science Alert
  • Einstein’s theory of relativity is 100 years old, but may not last – Inverse

The headlines are relevant because: Though the body of a piece has the space to craft what nuance it needs to present the peg, the headline must cut to it as quickly and crisply as possible – while also catching the eye of a potential reader on the social media, an arena where all readers are being inundated with headlines vying for attention.

For example, with the quantum gravity pre-print paper, the headline has two specific responsibilities:

  1. To be cognisant of the fact that scientists have found gravitational-wave echoes in LIGO data at the 2.9-sigma level of statistical significance. Note that 2.9 sigma is evidently short of the threshold at which some data counts as scientific evidence (and well short of that at which it counts as scientific fact – at least in high-energy physics). Nonetheless, it still presents a 1-in-270 chance of, as I’ve become fond of saying, an exciting thesis.
  2. To make reading the article (which follows from the headline) seem like it might be time well spent. This isn’t exactly the same as catching a reader’s attention; instead, it comprises catching one’s attention and subsequently holding and justifying it continuously. In other words, the headline shouldn’t mislead, misguide or misinform, as well as remain constantly faithful to the excitement it harbours.

Now, the thing about covering scientific developments from around the world and then comparing one’s coverage to those from Europe or the USA is that, for publications in those countries, what an Indian writer might see as an international development is in fact a domestic development. So Nature, Scientific American, Forbes, Futurism, etc. are effectively touting local accomplishments that are immediately relevant to their readers. The Wire, on the other hand, has to bank on the ‘universal’ aspect and by extension on themes of global awareness, history and the potential internationality of Big Science.

This is why a reference to Einstein in the headline helps: everyone knows him. More importantly, everyone was recently made aware of how right his theories have been since they were formulated a century ago. So the idea of proving Einstein wrong – as The Wire‘s headline read – is eye-catching. Second, phrasing the headline as a question is a matter of convenience: because the quasi-discovery has a statistical significance of only 2.9 sigma, a question signals doubt.

But if you argued that a question is also a cop-out, I’d agree. A question in a headline can be interpreted in two ways: either as a question that has not been answered yet but ought to be or as a question that is answered in the body. More often than not and especially in the click-bait era, question-headlines are understood to be of the latter kind. This is why I changed The Wire copy’s headline from ‘What if LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong…’ to ‘Has LIGO actually proved Einstein wrong…’.

More importantly, the question is an escapism at least to me because it doesn’t accurately reflect the development itself. If one accounts for the fact that the pre-print paper explicitly states that gravitational-wave echoes have been found in LIGO data only at 2.9 sigma, there is no question: LIGO has not proved Einstein wrong, and this is established at the outset.

Rather, the peg in this case is – for example – that physicists have proposed a way to look for evidence of quantum gravity using an experiment that is already running. This then could make for an article about the different kinds of physics that rule at different energy levels in the universe, and what levels of access humanity has to each.

So this story, and many others like it in the past year that all dealt with observations falling short of the evidence threshold but which have been worth writing about simply because of the desperation behind them, have – or could have – prompted science writers to think about the language they use. For example, the operative words/clause in the respective headlines listed above are:

  • Nature – hint
  • IB Times – might have just caused
  • Futurism – challenging
  • Science Alert – hint
  • Inverse – may not

Granted that an informed skepticism is healthy for science and that all science writers must remain as familiar with this notion as with the language of doubt, uncertainty, probability (and wave physics, it seems). But it still is likely the case that writers grappling with high-energy physics have to be more familiar than others, dealing as the latest research does with – yes – hope and desperation.

Ultimately, I may not be the perfect judge of what words work best when it comes to the fidelity of syntax to sentiment; that’s why I used a question for a headline in the first place! But I’m very interested in knowing how writers choose and have been choosing their words, if there’s any friction at all (in the larger scheme) between the choice of words and the prevailing sentiments, and the best ways to deal with such situations.

PS: If you’re interested, here’s a piece in which I struggled for a bit to get the words right (and finally had to resort to using single-quotes).

Featured image credit: bongonian/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

TIFR's superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).