I got confused while reading Magento License page: http://www.magentocommerce.com/license/

The sentence that made me confused is: "all contributions made to the software by you and others must be made available under the same OSL 3.0 license."

This means that, if I find an eCommerce that uses magento and they had customized one thing that I liked, I can require their source code? Is it right?


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  • This question appears to be off-topic because it is about interpretation of licensing – user93353 Jul 3 '13 at 14:46

I'm am not a lawyer, I am not your lawyer, and if you take this as legal advice, you're foolish. Talk to a lawyer (although I suspect you're just being provocative)

No. That's not how it works. My layman's understanding is if I make a change to a Magento source code file, and then distribute that change to another individual or organization, that individual or organization has full rights to that change under the OSL 3.0. I can't restrict access to that code under copyright or a commercial license once I've given it to them.

So you, as a third party, have no rights to that change since it hasen't been distributed to you. If you could convince the store owner to give you a copy, or convince me to give you a copy, you'd have full rights under the OSL.

There's also a huge grey area of IP law around "plugin" or "extension" code for open source software systems. There's been a few cases in the past where platform owners have tried to claim plugins and extensions, even if they contained 100% original code, fall under the same license as the software they're plugging into or extending. This has never been tested in court, and usually the platform owner backs down and simply stops promoting plugins or extensions that don't conform to the license they want.

This happened with the Joomla community and the GPL. In the end, Joomla stopped accepting plugins to their extension directory that didn't use the GPL license. This was never tested in court.

Since March 31 2009 the Joomla! Extensions Directory (JED) no longer accept non GPL and since July 1 2009 only GPL extensions are allowed to be listed here

It also flared up in the Wordpress community over the Thesis theme and the GPL. This was again made moot, but this time because the Thesis theme had actually copy and pasted significant portions of code directly from the GPL licensed Wordpress code. This made it crystal clear that the Thesis PHP file needed to be distributed under the GPL.

Standard disclaimers about IP law growing increasingly less clear cut, and being more about "what are you willing to press charges over"

  • Might it be you've overlooked External Deployment with OSL? Next to that GPL has been tested in court (in contrast to OSL). And sure whenever something was tested in court it was about a concrete work (and not how that concrete work has been named, so the imaginary concept that naming something plugin or extension or add-on would make a difference per-se). The grey area is around copyright and derivative works in software in general not in plugins and add-ons specifically. – hakre Jul 1 '13 at 14:50
  • @hakre Thanks, that's an awesome link, I wasn't aware of External Deployment (see: I am not a lawyer). Based on that new information, it's my understanding that Magento/eBay (as the original creator/licensor) could force merchants to disclose changes made to Magento code. However, that document actually strengthens the plugin/extension argument with "If linking can be accomplished by making and using unmodified copies of the Original Work ... only the Source Code of the Original Work must be disclosed." – Alan Storm Jul 1 '13 at 17:21
  • Rosen comments: "For one thing, that defined term includes no reference whatsoever to linking or to any other technical manner of making programs interoperate.". So linking - per-se - does not constitute a Derivate nor does it constitute a Non-Derivate, Rosen excludes any technical manner and instead leans on the code of the law: translate, adapt, alter, transform, modify, or arrange. However, linking for the cases you give is misleading, too. That linking is talking about object code. Magento (, Wordpress, Joomla) are PHP application are interpreted, no linking is involved for plugins. – hakre Jul 2 '13 at 8:19
  • For what Magento/Ebay could force: Each user - according to the terms of the OSL - could "force" as well (as long as US-copyright applies if I understood Rosen right). This contradicts partly with your answer. I can not say anything about practical consequences because the OSL has never been tested in court which could have given some insights. So far OSL is only Rosens own theory he sells to his customers AFAIK (No pun intended, this is his profession, customers pay him for that work he does). – hakre Jul 2 '13 at 8:29
  • @hakre Again, IANAL, but it's arguable that there's no translating, adapting, altering, transforming, modifying, or arranging when you're building a plugin or extension for these systems. That is, as far as I know, untested. Re: linking — I realize the original GPL was referring to object code, but (again, butt talking ahead) it's the legal vagueness of the term "linking" that's led to the legal ambiguity around these issues. Glad I skipped law school, this stuff seems maddening. – Alan Storm Jul 2 '13 at 8:33

No, that's not how the license works, unless you purchase the software from the party making the customization, or they freely give it to you.


  • Magento CE is freely given. – benmarks Jun 20 '13 at 3:22
  • 1
    But the customizations aren't necessarily freely given. – Roscius Jun 20 '13 at 3:29
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    So what you say is that I can take Magento and close-source it by only adding one commercial customization? I hardly can imagine that the world works this way. It seems pretty easy to exploit the license then . – hakre Jul 1 '13 at 14:42
  • @hakre I think the rub is in whether the work is distributed or not. The original question is a little ambiguous on the point, I was assuming that the questioner was asking whether or not he/she could request the source from a party that had customized the software, but not distributed it to them. If the modifications were distributed to them, I agree, it would fall under the same OSL conditions. The external deployment information you provided in your answer is something I missed and indeed interesting. – Roscius Jul 2 '13 at 1:31

First of all OSL is with strong copyleft and if you are able to use that software (over a network, e.g. inside your browser), the source-code has to be offered to you (even for the changes if those qualify as a Derivative work, more on that later):

External Deployment Defined

OSL 3.0 requires that the External Deployment of software be treated the same as a distribution. The effect, of course, is that copies of the Original Work or Derivative Works that are externally deployed (i.e., that are used in-house to provide services to third parties) must be distributed reciprocally under OSL 3.0, just as if those third parties had received actual copies of the Original Work or Derivative Works.

Most other open source licenses treat such network uses of software as internal to the company that runs the server, and they don't require disclosure of source code. That is seen by many nowadays as a loophole that permits large online companies to avoid their reciprocal source code obligations.

There is a version of GPL, the Affero GPL or AGPL, that also plugs the external deployment loophole [...]. The two-sentence External Deployment provision in OSL 3.0 [§ 5] plugs the loophole.

You then ask:

This means that, if I find an eCommerce that uses magento and they had customized one thing that I liked, I can require their source code? Is it right?

Well, first of all you have to proof that their website is a derivative-work bound to US-Copyright law. The OSL license only relates to US-Copyright law specifically in the point what might constitute a derivative work or not (by the code of US-Copyright law ["translate, adapt, alter, transform, modify, or arrange"] explicitily leaving out any technical detail). If not, there is no reason of whats-o-ever to believe that you've got any right to get the sources.

Even harder, how would you be able to proof? So even if you've got the right, you would need to bring it to a US-Court (not a different one I guess) and then you would need to proof that they have created a Derivative Work which is hard to do I guess. For that specific case. Hardly not manageable.

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