MediaWiki and Commercial Open Source Innovation

You may be sur­prised to hear that the dom­i­nant pub­lic Inter­net wiki engine, Medi­aWiki, only plays a minor role in the enter­prise. Within the cor­po­rate fire­walls, TWiki, Con­flu­ence, DokuWiki, Tiki­Wiki, and oth­ers are run­ning the show. Why is that? It is cer­tainly not the lack of com­mer­cial cus­tomer inter­est in Medi­aWiki, which every­one already knows as the soft­ware run­ning Wikipedia. It is also not an anti-commercial stance by the cre­ators of Medi­aWiki (and its effec­tive owner, the Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion).

From what I can tell, com­pa­nies are shy­ing away from bring­ing com­mer­cial inno­va­tion and invest­ment to Medi­aWiki because of the uncer­tainty around its intel­lec­tual prop­erty. I recently talked with a con­sult­ing firm that intends to provide ser­vices and exten­sions to Medi­aWiki. Exten­sion is the Medi­aWiki term for plug-in, that is pro­gram code sep­a­rate from the main project code but that is exe­cuted together with it. When they asked their lawyers whether they could cre­ate and sell pro­pri­etary exten­sions to Medi­aWiki they received a lawyerly “maybe”, which left them won­der­ing whether it would be wise to bank on Medi­aWiki.

Medi­aWiki uses the GPLv2 (and later) license fam­ily. Whether the GPL applies to exten­sions has been answered by the com­mu­nity a cou­ple of times with a not-so-resounding “prob­a­bly not”. Thus, soft­ware firms are some­what left guess­ing as to the legal sit­u­a­tion and the inten­tions of the Medi­aWiki devel­op­ment com­mu­nity. Being able to decide on your own when you want to open source or keep some­thing pro­pri­etary, how­ever, is key to engag­ing soft­ware firms and cre­at­ing com­mer­cial invest­ment and inno­va­tion.

At Wik­iSym 2010 I talked to a lot of Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion (WMF) folks. The WMF oper­ates Wikipedia and is the care­taker of Medi­aWiki. From these dis­cus­sions I know that the WMF guys want com­mer­cial inno­va­tion around Medi­aWiki and are not at all fun­da­men­tal­ists about open-sourcing every­thing that touches Medi­aWiki. So here is what I think needs to hap­pen if we want to see Medi­aWiki ben­e­fit from com­mer­cial inno­va­tion and have it make inroads into the enter­prise:

  • Excep­tion clause. There must be legal cer­tainty as to whether extensions/plugins can be kept pro­pri­etary. The way to go is a clearly defined excep­tion clause to the GPL that cov­ers exten­sions. It must be safe for a firm to inno­vate and keep the fruits of their labor for a while. I don’t worry about not shar­ing: In most cases, com­peti­tors and com­mu­nity will catch-up fast enough so that nobody will keep soft­ware pro­pri­etary for too long.
  • Trade­marks and other IP. The term “Medi­aWiki” is impor­tant from a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive due to spill-over effects from Wikipedia. Thus it must be crystal-clear under what cir­cum­stances a soft­ware firm can use this term in its mar­ket­ing out­reach. The usual solu­tion is to cre­ate a foun­da­tion, say, the Medi­aWiki Foun­da­tion, which becomes the care­taker of the trade­mark and other IP, and in which com­mer­cial enti­ties can have a stake. [1]

The sec­ond bul­let item sug­gests the cre­ation of a Medi­aWiki Foun­da­tion. One may won­der whether the Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion can play this role. I wouldn’t advise this, because con­flict of inter­est res­o­lu­tion would be dif­fi­cult in such a setup. The pri­mary mis­sion of the Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion is to steer and oper­ate a speci­fic set of ser­vices, and Medi­aWiki is just the soft­ware being used for it. If firms would always fear hav­ing to bow to WMF inter­ests when the going gets tough, they’d stay away from the get-go, as they are doing today.

Another alter­na­tive would be to trans­fer rights to a soft­ware foun­da­tion like the Free Soft­ware Foun­da­tion (due to GPL) or maybe the Apache Soft­ware Foun­da­tion if folks were to con­sider a license change. These foun­da­tions are expe­ri­enced in han­dling con­flicts and might be good care­tak­ers. On the other hand, as the Dru­pal Foun­da­tion shows by com­par­ison, Medi­aWiki may well be impor­tant enough to war­rant its own foun­da­tion.

[1] Eugene Kim pointed out to me the Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion trade­mark pol­icy, which cov­ers WMF trade­marks. Medi­aWiki seems to play only a minor role only, though.

8 thoughts on “MediaWiki and Commercial Open Source Innovation

  1. Dirk Riehle Post author

    @Michael 🙂 Name soup indeed. How­ever, a key issue about a Medi­aWiki Foun­da­tion would be that the WMF is only one stake­holder. It only makes sense to have such a foun­da­tion if it is not WMF dom­i­nated. In fact, given the *lack* of com­mer­cial invest­ment, there is no point in hav­ing a Medi­aWiki Foun­da­tion today. What is needed are clear state­ments from the WMF where they want to take Medi­aWiki and what it would mean for com­mer­cial enti­ties inter­ested in invest­ing in Medi­aWiki.

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  2. Andreas Gohr

    I doubt that the GPL is the cause for Medi­aWiki play­ing “a minor role in the enter­prise”. DokuWiki is GPLv2 as well and yes exten­sions *have* to be GPLv2 too. That wasn’t a prob­lem for any of our cus­tomers so far.

    The rea­son why Medi­aWiki isn’t big in the enter­prise is that it is a wiki engine that was cre­ated to pro­duce a huge, pub­lic ency­clo­pe­dia. That is far from what wikis are used in the Enter­prise. And that’s why other wikis are a much bet­ter fit for the enter­prise.

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  3. Robert Leverington

    Whether or not Medi­aWiki exten­sions are required to be licensed under the GPL is a mat­ter that is still up for debate, and we will not know until we’ve seen a test case in court for a some­thing sim­i­lar. How­ever, regard­less of this, com­pa­nies that pro­duce Medi­aWiki exten­sions will never be required to release them as this is not what the GPL stip­u­lates.

    Regard­ing reli­cens­ing and chang­ing the license holder: I doubt this is fea­si­ble. Many, many peo­ple have con­tributed to Medi­aWiki and you would need agree­ment from a large num­ber of peo­ple for this to hap­pen (which I doubt is real­is­tic). With­out this, there doesn’t seem much point in a “Medi­aWiki Foun­da­tion”.

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  4. Dirk Riehle Post author

    @andi Well, yes, but I don’t see a good rea­son why it can’t evolve into a good wiki engine for the enter­prise. At least the poten­tial cus­tomer inter­est seems to be there.

    @andi @robert Which is why this is a chicken and egg prob­lem. You really want legal cer­tainty before you invest your resources (as a firm) into Medi­aWiki. And only then would Medi­aWiki become viable in the enter­prise (and every­one would ben­e­fit).

    @robert What do you mean by firms will never be required to release them? If they dis­trib­ute their exten­sions as part of an enter­prise sale the GPL redis­tri­b­u­tion clause would trig­ger and they’d have to open source.

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  5. Markus

    To draw an anal­ogy: Would you also argue that the license for Wikipedia arti­cles should be changed from Cre­ative Com­mons Share Alike to a license with­out the Share Alike require­ment, because it might cause busi­nesses use Wikipedia con­tent in some new pro­pri­etary inno­va­tions?

    I think most authors would not like that. The main moti­va­tion for their work is to cre­ate free con­tent, and not to help busi­nesses mak­ing money with pro­pri­etary busi­ness mod­els.

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  6. Dirk Riehle Post author

    @Markus I’m mostly con­cerned about exten­sions, and I don’t see how your anal­ogy applies here? The Medi­aWiki core can remain GPLed but I argue firms want legal cer­tainty around exten­sions.

    If the com­mu­nity con­sen­sus is that GPL all the way is the way to go or that uncer­tainty around licens­ing is a good thing that’s a clear state­ment: It makes clear that com­mer­cial invest­ment is not wanted or not a pri­or­ity and so there won’t be any. (As is the case today.)

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