Shocking exactly no one, Donald Trump’s new social media venture — Truth Social — turned out to be a slapdash effort that played fast and loose with the law. Which is heartbreaking because I think we were all pulling for this plucky underdog to finally break through.
Rather than invest the time and money required to build a legitimate challenger to the social media powerhouses that facilitated his rise, Trump threw a few bucks and maybe a free Trump steak or two at some software folks to put together a bare bones alternative where his fans are free to share vaccine misinformation and threaten government officials while Trump collects their personal data for his all but inevitable 2024 run. A win-win.
Unfortunately, this is not a recipe for designing an innovative, first-class experience and those software developers needed outside help to get something off the ground in the time-frame provided. They apparently found it in the form of open-source code from Mastodon, which, in and of itself, isn’t a big deal. Except Donald Trump is Donald Trump and immediately took this thoroughbred gift horse and sent it to the glue factory instead of the Kentucky Derby because he’s never seen a hard-earned dollar he wouldn’t trade for a quick penny.
Truth Social describes its source code — and everything else about the platform — as proprietary, which is a big problem under the AGPLv3 license that Mastodon uses, requiring anyone using the open-source code to release the amended code to the public. Trump was unwilling to do so and now Trump is on notice that Mastodon means business:
Early evidence strongly supports that Trump’s Group publicly launched a so-called “test site” of their “Truth Social” product, based on the AGPLv3’d Mastodon software platform. Many users were able to create accounts and use it — briefly. However, when you put any site on the Internet licensed under AGPLv3, the AGPLv3 requires that you provide (to every user) an opportunity to receive the entire Corresponding Source for the website based on that code. These early users did not receive that source code, and Trump’s Group is currently ignoring their very public requests for it. To comply with this important FOSS license, Trump’s Group needs to immediately make that Corresponding Source available to all who used the site today while it was live. If they fail to do this within 30 days, their rights and permissions in the software are automatically and permanently terminated. 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.
The Software Freedom Conservancy has given Trump 30 days to release the code or face legal action.
Open-source shenanigans aren’t new. It’s reminiscent of the Sergey Aleynikov prosecution, where Manhattan DA Cy Vance picked up a criminal prosecution that the Second Circuit had already kicked to the curb as laughably meritless. But Goldman Sachs keeps its prosecutors on a tight leash and convinced Vance to send Aleynikov to prison for stealing snippets of code he’d worked on after he decided to move to a new company. Experts weighed in that the snippets were inconsequential, but Vance only stays his hand when rich people ask him, and Aleynikov didn’t qualify.
The oft-forgotten wrinkle in the Aleynikov case was that Goldman, not Aleynikov, probably deserved a lawsuit over that code. Because the Goldman system lifted open-source code to build its system under a license that simply required that anyone using the code to release their modifications back to the open-source collective. Instead, Goldman took the information and reclassified it as “proprietary” in violation of the license. Sound familiar? And Vance rubberstamped this practice by classifying Aleynikov as a thief for stealing the property that Goldman had actually stolen.
But if anyone thinks this is the tidal wave of karma that finally capsizes the S.S. Trump, think again. Given Trump’s history, one assumes he’ll ignore this request and ramble forward with the venture, having insulated the new company from the rest of his holdings. The lawsuit will drag out for months or years, he’ll lose, the social media site will go bankrupt, and Trump will walk away having looted whatever value (personal data) he wanted out of it.
It’s the circle of life in Trumpworld from Atlantic City casinos to Trump Air.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.