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Former President Trump's new social network might be in hot water before it even launches. Mastodon, a free social media framework, alleges that Truth Social is passing open source software off as its own, and has given them 30 days to fix this. If it doesn't fix things by the end of next month, things could get messy.
In a post to the Mastodon blog, founder and CEO Eugen Rochko explained that the problem is not simply that Truth Social uses Mastodon, but that it does so while claiming ownership over the site's code. People inspecting the code of the pre-launch site last week found it was very clearly using Mastodon's code without acknowledgment.
"The terms of service included a worrying passage, claiming that the site is proprietary property and all source code and software are owned or controlled by them or licensed to them," he wrote. "Mastodon is free software published under the AGPLv3 license, which requires any over-the-network service using it to make its source code and any modifications to it publicly accessible."
No mention of Mastodon was made by Truth, although it's plain that the company's code is being used.
This sort of license is common in open source software, which is provided free of charge even in many cases to large corporations, which are free to use and modify it — as long as they do so publicly and make their work part of the overall development of the tool. This has produced a rich environment of collaboration between people volunteering their time and companies whose engineers are essentially being paid to contribute.
But such licenses are frequently not respected. Often it's by companies large enough to think they can get away with it, or simply don't understand what's required of them, even if it may only be a use acknowledgement or a GitHub page documenting how they changed the code. The consequences of violations are not at all clear and depend on many factors. For instance, if a company were to use the open source software under a free license in order to avoid paying for an available paid license, a lawsuit might be filed seeking monetary damages for lost income. Or a suit could purely be motivated by a desire to keep the code open, such as this recent case against Vizio.
The sheer number of license violations out there means many will slip through the cracks, but the Trump social network's highly public flouting of the license probably won't. Rochko's post says that if Truth Social doesn't comply by acknowledging and posting the Mastodon-sourced code for review, their license to said code will be revoked on November 26 (30 days after a letter explaining all this was sent to Truth Social's chief legal officer).
This is the very remedy which Software Freedom Conservancy predicted would come into play last week, since as they point out, "That's how AGPLv3's cure provision works — no exceptions — even if you're a real estate mogul, reality television star, or even a former POTUS." This "cure" only awaited notification by the copyright holder (i.e. Mastodon) assuming no other agreement was reached.
"Someone using the code without a license would be infringing on our copyright," Rochko told TechCrunch in an email. "The avenues for fighting copyright infringement would be open to us then."
Rochko admits that they're not pleased that the Trump faction is using their software, but that they all were prepared for that when they got into this business, and that their only real objection is that it's not being used according to the rules:
As far as personal feelings are concerned, of course we would prefer if people so antithetical to our values did not use and benefit from our labour, but the reality of working on free software is that you give up the possibility of choosing who can and cannot use it from the get-go, so in a practical sense the only issue we can take with something like Truth Social is if they don’t even comply with the free software license we release our work under.
Mastodon was deliberately designed so that instances of it are essentially completely independent, and the company can't reach out and shut one down. Ironically, it's the exact sort of social media tool Trump's allies have been crying out for while complaining about the centralized authority of Twitter and Facebook; Mastodon has been available for years, yet in adopting it Trump's company has done so in the most dubious possible way and put the whole operation at risk.
If Truth Social backpedals on its claims to have created the social network itself — and not simply set up a branded instance of Mastodon, which anyone can do in an afternoon — it will be safe but may lose a bit of luster. If it doesn't, then it's a textbook case and a lawsuit may force the company to build its own code base after all, which they may find is harder than expected.