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.
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.