Jerry Springer presents: The ExpressionEngine Matrix showdown

FF Matrix by Brandon Kelly

What can only be described as an ee-shit-storm kicked off today, when an ExpressionEngine developer called Alex Gordon released a forked version of the popular EE extension, FF Matrix.

Forking of open source software is normal. In fact, the open source scene relies on the self-perpetuating effect of contributors forking, modifying and enhancing software all for the greater good.

What makes this case a little controversial though is that Brandon Kelly (the author of FF Matrix) recently set up business on his own. He has changed the license on all current and future versions of FF Matrix to a commercial model.

Crucially, the version that Alex Gordon has forked is the old version distributed on a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. Under those terms Alex (or anyone for that matter) is entitled to fork and redistribute the software as long as Brandon is credited as the author and the licensing model is not changed.

Braying mob

So Alex isn’t doing anything illegal, but is it immoral? Is it in any way a dishonour to Brandon who has publicly stated his intent and reasons for making the software commercial?

The ExpressionEngine community certainly seem to think so. Brandon Kelly is clearly held in exceptionally high regard by the community at large who have taken up arms today in his defence.

Comments like “don’t shit where you eat” and “this is a tight knit group” and an echoing chorus of “take this down immediately” have flooded the inter-webs today. To be frank, it all sounds very cliquey - this pitchfork-wielding mob want blood!

Now I have a certain degree of sympathy for Brandon Kelly… but not much. And I mean that with total respect to him. I have paid for and used several of Brandon’s products in my own projects, they are of top notch quality and judging by the response of the community today I have not one inkling of doubt that Brandon is going to make a very successful living for himself.

But I have had trouble today digesting the community’s response. There is a real feeling that some unwritten code of conduct has been violated, and poor old Alex Gorden has been brought to question for doing, what I have no doubt, he considers is a good thing for the community.

Alex isn’t attempting to profiteer off this. In fact to the contrary, he’s offering to maintain and continue development of the old version of the software for free. He’s offering his own time and commitment. For free. Surely the community should be grateful for this?

Us web and EE developers now have two choices. Either, use Brandon’s official version for the very reasonable fee of $35. We can safely assume that Brandon will continue to develop his software to the high standards we have come to expect. We can also buy into the peace of mind knowing that for the fee we have an official support channel through which we can seek answers to any problems.

The alternative option is to use the forked version maintained by Alex. This comes with no official support channel and really, no guarantees that it will be developed at all or even continue to work with future versions of ExpressionEngine. So, you take your chances and pick your extension.

The ExpressionEngine spirit Vs the spirit of the Internet

But here’s a thought. What if Alex comes up with some great new ideas that Brandon hasn’t considered and implements them into his forked version of the plugin? What if the forked version becomes technically superior to Brandon’s version? Well, in the spirit of open source everyone gets to benefit for free, and in the spirit of open source Brandon can pull those developments back into his version of the extension. How can that be a bad thing?

In true Jerry Springer style I’ll leave you with one final thought. Try to imagine an Internet with no open source. If none of the free open source software that powers the Internet existed, then frankly the Internet wouldn’t even exist. If all that software did exist but only on a commercial model, then not a single one of us would be able to operate as small independent businesses. We all take advantage of free software every single day - most of the time without even knowing it. This is not a question of saving $35 here or there, it’s a question of understanding the very values that make up the fabric of the Internet.

Further reading

7 responses

PXLated responded on with…

Saw the dustup and my initial thought was everyone was being way too emotional - and as you mentioned, clickish. Would have been nice if Alex had gotten Brandon on board - since it would very much be like the “freemium” model so popular today - but that’s water under the bridge. Maybe if everyone can settle down and relax a bit, cooler heads will prevail. Alex really isn’t the devil in spite of the vitrol.

Omkar responded on with…

Great, thoughtful and balanced post. It definitely should have been handled better (just courtesy to reach out to Brandon). And I share your observations regarding the mob mentality. I too have purchased several of Brandon’s add-ons and will continue to do so - he builds incredibly great tools.

There might be some parallels drawn to ActiveCollab which started out free and then became commercial. ProjectPier attempted to continue building off the free version and I was hopeful that they would have huge success. However, the features that were important to me continued to be actively developed by ActiveCollab and I ended up purchasing the commercial version of ActiveCollab. I’m not sure what the latest with ProjectPier is but when I last checked, there was not much activity.

Open source should be encouraged. Understanding the nuances of these licensing schemes is important (I don’t know what I’d use if I were offering an add-on).

Joe Tuckwell responded on with…

You make some very good points and I agree that the flaming isn’t great but I don’t think this is good the EE community. As far as I can see the difference between a usual ‘fork’ and this instance is that, currently, EE matrix is just a way to get a free version of FF matrix. Sure, Alex might develop new features but he has essentially pulled the rug from under Brandon who needs the revenue to continue to provide a professional level of support for his add-ons. And it’s the level of support that sets Pro devs like Brandon, Solspace, etc. apart.

On the flip side, it does make me wonder if the same fuss would be made over a fork of a much less popular add-on (or developer)?

John responded on with…

hear hear.

There’s too much shouting being aimed at the author of the forked project, he’s not doing anything wrong!

Many people are talking about what’s moral, use Brandon Matrix if you feel that way.

I run about 5 charitable instances of EE, they all use FF Matrix and I used them when FF Matrix was free. Suddently FF Matrix was not free, it was not $35. I used FF Matrix on these projects as it was free, I didn’t use Playa or Wygwam on those project as it was not free.

Brandon, I’m afraid you brought this on yourself when you started charging for something that was previously free without any warning, that was a little unethical too don’t you think?

Will I use EEMatrix, yes! Will I use WYGWAM where needed, yes! Will I use PLAYA where needed, yes!

Todd Jackson responded on with…

I think it comes down to what you believe Alex motivations to be. You’re pretty confident in calling this a fork and there will be continued development.

I’m one of those who suggested that should be taken down, because I didn’t think of this as a fork. From my understanding, when somebody forks a project, that means they’ve added something that spins the project in a new direction.

You can’t just take the code from someone else’s project on Github unaltered, click the fork button and say “Hey, I’ve forked your project.” You could, but you wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Alex simply put the previous version up again for free, without adding anything. If he said, “Hey, thanks to the Creative Commons License, I’m going to offer a free version based of Brandon’s 1.3.5 of FF Matrix with these new additions I’ve added”, I’d be far more on his side. In other words, if he started his EE Matrix with a true fork, rather than release what is, as of now, someone else’s code. He’d have a much stronger argument that he’s adding to the community.

By posting something that was the previous code as-is, it implied a motivation to myself and others that Alex’s intension were not to “fork” but to be “free.” It may not be generous on my part, but I didn’t see any evidence to the contrary. His post doesn’t really imply how he’ll change FF Matrix and what he’ll add to it. (And there are ways to change FF Matrix for the better, I’m sure of it.) He only bemoans that the project isn’t free anymore.

I think the onus when you fork is to prove that you are adding to the project. If and when Alex does add to it, he’ll prove his intentions are beyond “free.”

Justin responded on with…

Thanks for the quote…

@John you can email Brandon Kelly with the charitable organizations info and usually he will grant you a license for that.

UltraBob responded on with…

I’m not sure it is true that Brandon could pull useful innovations in EE Matrix under a share alike license back into his project without turning the project back into a Creative Commons release. Other than that, I agree, there doesn’t really seem to be much actual reason for the huge amount of outcry. The one thing I have a problem with is Alex not contacting Brandon ahead of time to let him know what he was planning on doing. That seems hostile and nasty, and while it doesn’t violate any licensing terms, I think it violates the spirit of the license and of the community. That being said, I don’t know what was happening in Alex’ head, there are likely much more innocent reasons for him not having contacted Brandon up front than what it seems on the surface. I think the vilification has been quite overwrought.

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