What is community worth to you?

Updated on July 23, 2010

I’ve been watching with interest, and some dismay, as a real kerfuffle has broken out in the WordPress community over the past few days surrounding the matter of copyright.

At issue is interpretation of the GNU Public License (GPL), the "copyleft" license under whose terms WordPress software is released, how developers of premium themes offer their product, and also honouring the GPL.

Among the many posts that have appeared with commentary and opinion on the issue, The Next Web summarizes the situation nicely:

[…WordPress founder Matt] Mullenweg called out developers of “premium” themes for WordPress (the ones you have to pay for) that are not released under the GPL as ‘evil’. WordPress itself is released under GPLv2, and Mullenweg feels that the products developed on top of WordPress (such as those premium themes) need to be GPL as well. To Mullenweg, if you build off of free software, and depend on it, to license them under other means is a breach of ethics.

[Premium theme developer Chris] Pearson disagrees with Mullenweg, and has been having a war of words over Twitter for the past few hours to reinforce his points.  In Pearson’s logic, he should be able to license his own work in whatever manner he sees fit, regardless of the platform on which it is built. However, the GPL has a specific clause (according to the Mullenweg interview) that states that anything built on a GPL licensed platform must also be under GPL licensing.

As you can imagine, supporters and detractors of both sides have been tweeting their opinions. As far as I can tell, there’s no dominant view among the thousands of tweets on what is right about GPL in this case.

A number of knowledgeable WordPress developers have posted some well thought-out commentaries on the issue, notably Drew Blas, David G. Larson and Rob Diana.

It looks like only some kind of legal involvement – ranging from the benign clarity of meaning to the aggressive filing of a lawsuit – will bring some light on interpreting the GPL.

But it seems to me this goes beyond just legal definitions of copyright. Isn’t it about doing what’s right in a community that’s founded on values of freedom of expression and open sharing of intellectual property to the benefit of many?

Does Chris Pearson’s business model, and that of other premium theme developers who don’t use the GPL, drive a huge wedge into the heart of everyone in the WordPress community who do adhere to the principles of the GPL?

I asked Chris Pearson via Twitter (and a little impolitely) what he thought of that. He said he wasn’t doing that. My reply that he should therefore support the GPL didn’t get a further response.

I use Chris’ Thesis theme in this blog (I bought a developer license in 2008). I like it a lot. I didn’t really pay much attention to GPL or any other kind of licensing until this all blew up.

Do I ditch Thesis? That question has crossed my mind. I really hope a smooth resolution will result from this kerfuffle, and soon, that will help me make up my mind.

Maybe a legal route is the only way to get that.

[Update July 18, 10:15pm:] The kerfuffle continues although some deeper thought is emerging in some blog posts. I especially like Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress by Mark Jaquith, one of the original WordPress developers, which to my mind presents the most comprehensive and credible assessment of this situation so far.

I’ve decided that I will move away from Thesis which I will do as soon as I’ve settled on an alternative theme that supports GPL and supports the open principles of the broad WordPress community. I’m experimenting with alternatives on my Sandb0x blog which I’ve resurrected again for this purpose.

[Update July 23, 7:15am:] Chris Pearson has now decided to embrace the GPL and make Thesis part compliant with its license, sufficiently enough to satisfy Matt Mullenweg.

I say ‘part compliant’ because Thesis will now have two license conditions – one part that is the GPL and which covers WordPress’ PHP code that may be incorporated into the Thesis theme framework; the other that is proprietary and covers things like images, cascading style sheets and JavaScripts.

Pearson links to the new terms of service; these are the relevant new texts:

2. Intellectual Property License

Thesis General PHP License

The PHP code portions of Thesis are subject to the GNU General Public License, version 2. All images, cascading style sheets, and JavaScript elements are released under the Thesis Proprietary Use License below.

Thesis Proprietary Use License

The Thesis Proprietary Use License is a GPL compatible license that applies only to the images, cascading style sheets, and JavaScript files contained in Thesis. These elements are the copyrighted intellectual property of DIYthemes and cannot be redistributed or used in any fashion other than as provided in this Agreement.

This is good news although I wonder if it actually does resolve the legal questions and doubts on copyright that have arisen due to this kerfuffle, never mind the community issues.

One post I recommend reading for its deep perspective on the overall situation is I Create, Distribute & Disseminate Cracked Software by Andy Beard. Make a cup of tea or coffee, draw up your chair and settle down for a good read. That includes the comments.

For me, I’ve made my decision to switch from Thesis so I will be ploughing a new furrow, as it were, with a new theme very soon.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Ian Betteridge

    I'm currently a Thesis user, and I'm now pondering ditching WordPress entirely. Matt's interpretation of the GPL is effectively saying that any program which interacts with another program, even if it is entirely separate code, must inherit the GPL. If that's the case, I can no longer use or support WordPress (or any GPL software).

    Isn't this “rigid” interpretation of GPL what Microsoft was warning about a few years ago – and was roundly criticised for at the time?

  2. photomatt

    You should take up my offer to buy a copy of a premium theme of your choice — Genesis and Canvas are popular choices thus far. I bet you could have your blog switched over in no time.

  3. photomatt

    Howdy Ian, it's completely possible to write a plug-in or theme that doesn't inherit the GPL, but it's basically not worth the trouble because you lose all the benefits of using WP in the first place, and more importantly Thesis is not written in that way. In fact, Thesis includes several hundred lines of code copy and pasted directly from WordPress which, since he claims his code is under his proprietary license, is a clear copyright violation.

    WordPress' position, from the very beginning, has been that themes and plugins use core WP functions, data structures, actions, filters, hooks, loops… basically they intertwine very closely with WordPress, and so user freedom provided by the GPL must also be inherit in the add-ons. This isn't controversial, in fact all premium theme providers save Thesis already follow this. This is pretty clear-cut and if you disagree with it, as you do, finding a platform which doesn't have such a license is the best thing to do! Don't build on the platform and just ignore the license.

    Finally, our interpretation actually isn't that rigid in that we recognize that CSS, JS, and images of a theme are not linked to core WP structures, just the PHP. Chris could make his PHP GPL, keep all the rest under the same license (his theme isn't terribly useful without CSS or JS) and do exactly what he does today and be 100% legal — but he's decided to dig in on the issue above his business, community, and moral self-interest.

  4. neville

    Thanks, Matt, appreciate the offer. Still considering what I will do regarding the Thesis theme. I'm probably going to wait on the outcome of this current situation, ie, conclusive clarity on whether or not premium themes (or any theme, for that matter) are subject to the GPL. For me, much also depends on how Chris Pearson participates in resolving this kerfuffle.

    Hope we have clarity asap.

  5. Sillyness

    Why don’t you just leave this issue alone and say “We don’t care how you license your theme but we’d prefer you choose GPL because of these benefits…” And those benefits include whatever you dream up (i.e. inclusion in premium theme directory, etc.).

    If WP/Automattic took this stance there would be no debate and it immediately remove the potential consequences brought to WP/Automattic’s brand by engaging in a lawsuit or mud slinging.

    I don’t see why you don’t want the best of both worlds. That is, (1) attracting new business owners to drive innovation and evangelize WP, (2) maintain WP’s adoption of free source code that’s built by GPL compliant developers.

  6. Sillyness

    Another thing to consider is the potential innovation WP may lose if it alienates non-GPL developers. Of course, WP/Automattic will promote the fact that many successful premium WP theme development companies are already GPL. However, what they fail to see is that most, if not ALL, of those developers that are now GPL compliant started out non-GPL.

    So the question is, would all those commercial non-GPL development companies chose to develop their businesses based on WP if they had to be GPL-compliant to begin with? Starting a business is risky enough but putting your faith into people to essentially do the right thing and not freely distribute your livelyhood may just be too much risk for a new business owner. Hence, if WP files a lawsuit or continues to force the issue, potential WP developers may simply choose another platform to secure the afforded protection of a non-GPL license.

  7. Sillyness

    Matt,
    How are you QUANTIFYING the number of new business owners that choose NOT to develop on WP because of the GPL?

  8. photomatt

    If someone decides not to develop on WP because of the GPL it's not a lose because we couldn't be under any other license, and I wouldn't want to be anyway. It would be like a new state joining the US but only they could pick and choose which parts of the Constitution they want to follow. Better to be true to your principles, even if you're smaller at least you did the right thing. If you don't enforce the terms of your license, why have a license at all? Also the precedent we set will help all other open source CMSes (like Drupal and Joomla) who share our view of the GPL and add-ons.

    For about 2.5 years now we have done exactly what you suggest and encouraged and given special promotion to premium theme providers who are also GPL (100%, not just split license) and it has gone very well. We list over 45 companies providing fully GPL premium themes and I believe those companies generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue per year, and growing fast.

  9. Andy C

    Neville – I respect and completely agree with your decsion to ditch Thesis.

    I simply can't believe Chris Pearson's arrogant and ill-informed attitude in the interview with Matt Mullenweg on the GPL issues.

  10. Sillyness

    If you don’t ENFORCE the GPL what’s the worst that could happen?

    Say you agree to disagree with Pearson and you add more benefits to going GPL. Why isn’t that a better solution than slinging mud and threatening lawsuits?

  11. Sillyness

    You take this to court or continue to press the issue and I guarantee that 1) developers will start using GPL-compliant workaround plugins/themes that serve no purpose but to skirt the GPL and 2) less commercial businesses will develop off of WP. Either way it’s bad for WP. How do you not see this Matt?

    You're all (Pearson included) shooting yourselves in the foot by promoting this nonsense. You're simply backing yourself into a corner where you’ll be forced to take legal action. It’s completely childish and harmful to everyone involved.

  12. neville

    Thanks for your comments, Sillyness. Hard to judge your credibility, though, when you hide behind anonymity. Maybe your handle says it all?

    Anyway, one thing in all this seems reasonably clear to me – until someone grasps the issue and determines where everyone stands as far as copyright is concerned, then nonsense will continue. That probably means a legal intervention of some kind (and btw, Matt said a few days ago that he's working on it.)

    That's the legal stuff. An equal issue to me is how genuinely participative in the broader community a theme developer is or not. It's pretty clear now that Chris Pearson isn't.

    That's not an important matter to everyone, though. In which case, everyone has their own choice.

  13. Shannon Whitley

    I'm happy to see that we're finally gaining some clarity regarding themes. As a plugin developer, I've never understood the differentiation between a plugin and a theme for the purposes of the GPL. It has always been very clear that plugins were considered derivative works; why not themes? I've created themes as well, and I use many of the same WP functions that I reference in my plugins. All of this code derives from the original WordPress codebase. Like it or not, themes and plugins must respect the WP license.

    And Neville, let me know when you're ready to switch. I'll give you a hand, no charge. :)

  14. Andreas Nurbo

    Matt have you read Chip Bennetts article on the matter? It is really good.
    Can we expect to see something similar in support of the WP leadership view? It would definitely bring more meat to your interpretation of the matter. A biased piece from the SFLC is not enough to support your interpretation.

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