Wordpress vs. Thesis Theme

I don't use Wordpress. I also never used the Thesis Theme when I did use Wordpress. Despite the fact that you can do some pretty cool stuff with Wordpress and the Thesis Theme together, I don't know how to do so and I've always been overwhelmed by the thought of trying to figure it all out. Regardless, I have some thoughts about this whole Wordpress vs. Thesis Theme debate that's going on right now.

Yesterday, Matt Mullenweg of Wordpress and Chris Pearson (creator of the Thesis Theme) clashed as to whether or not Thesis should be required to use the GPL, a license that is used to license free software. Wordpress "requires" that everyone who develops for the Wordpress ecosystem release their work under the GPL, and Pearson doesn't think Wordpress has the right to dictate the terms under which he releases his software. You can listen to the full debate here. Pearson does not currently use the GPL to license his software, because it would allow people to freely distribute his work that he's built a business around selling.

While Pearson did himself no favors in the debate by declaring himself as one of the three most important people in the history of the development of Wordpress, and comparing the issue to a law that made it "illegal to get a blow job in Georgia" by explaining it was unenforceable, I have to say that I completely agree with his position against Wordpress forcing 3rd party developers to release Wordpress shiz under the GPL.

It is ridiculous for Wordpress to attempt enforcing a rule that states everyone who develops for their platform has to abide by a specific software license, especially when the license requires the software to be given away for free. The question of legality is where the debate lies.

The Thesis Theme is software written on top of Wordpress, software that fits on top like a Lego piece, and as such, is not actually part of Wordpress. As a completely separate entity, Wordpress should claim dominion over 3rd party plugins.

In place of Pearson's blow job analogy, I submit my own. Let's relate this to the physical world. Imagine Apple creating a rule that states no company is allowed to make a red iPhone case unless they give it away for free. Sure, some companies might be okay with giving red cases away for free, thinking that plenty of people might come for a free red case but end up purchasing a different color case instead. But Apple would have no right to prevent anyone from selling a red case. Can you imagine Apple's case standing up in court? Neither can I.

Despite Mullenweg's best interest to keep Wordpress and all related software free for the benefit of users, it's irrational to try to force everybody to release their software under the GPL. The reason Pearson wrote software for Wordpress was so that he could make money. He shoudn't be faulted, or stopped, for doing that. The fact that Mullenweg is trying to control how Pearson releases his software is insane. It's not up to him, and it's not up to Wordpress.

As for me, I'll stick with Posterous. There are no such bogus restrictions here. Sachin and Garry know full well that any BS like that would totally disincentivize people from developing for their platform, and besides that, people have the full right to make money off of their own software, regardless of what it's built on or how it fits into another piece of software.

Ultimately, the free market should decide what stays and what goes. If people don't want to pay to use Thesis Theme, they can choose to find a theme elsewhere. There are plenty. It's as simple as that.
15 responses
While I understand your points, I disagree about your thought that Matt isn't cool to force Thesis follow GPL license.

Wordpress was built with GPL license, that means all software, code that based-on Wordpress have to apply the GPL license. It's the way it works. Thesis calls Wordpress functions, so it has to follow the GPL.

Without GPL, there's no Wordpress. Wordpress was developed based on the core of b2/cafelog.

Just my 2 cents

One thing I would like to know is if Wordpress.com has released any of their "proprietary" things under the GPL. I see their business model as being similar to what Pearson is doing. Wordpress.com offers commercial WordPress hosting and makes (I imagine) significant profits from that service.

But, on the scale that WordPress.com is operating, I would imagine that they have tons of custom-made applications that let them monitor server health, check on Wordpress caching, automate "blog" rollouts and deployments, and auto-upgrade their entire network. Those sorts of tools are "built to leverage GPLed WordPress code" and using the logic they want Pearson to follow, they should also be forced to release under the GPL. I should be able to go download a multi-WordPress hosting package from GitHub or whatever that would let me build out a WordPress.com-like service.

If they _HAVE_ released all that code under the GPL, then I haven't seen it anywhere. If not, then I believe it is extremely hypocritical to expect Pearson to release Thesis as GPL.

Personally, I think the way that the WordPress camp is treating Pearson is ridiculous and it makes me sad that I've supported WordPress in the past. I personally would probably never spend the money to purchase a license to Thesis, but I respect what Pearson has built and understand his motivations for doing so. From what little I've seen of Thesis, it's an extremely well-built system with a lot of great functionality that I'm sure a lot of people appreciate.

The dumbest thing about this whole mess is that it feels like the WordPress guys are using RIAA/MPAA style tactics. Rather than be grateful that a guy like Pearson spends a ton of time building something that extends and improves their platform, they're resorting to bullying and legal scare tactics. Not only that, but their actions have been very rude. If they don't like what he's doing, they should just ignore him. It's bad form to stoop down and start name calling. They're WordPress, and it looks really weak to see @wordpress sending tweets to a guy and calling him names.

I used to recommend WordPress to just about everyone. It wasn't always the platform I would choose for myself (I'm a developer and prefer to build what I need), but it's a great system to let you get a nice looking website set up quickly that anyone can maintain. With this sort of behavior, I'll probably stop advocating their system just out of principle.

Truly a sad day for Open Source.

Well put Cory.

There are lots of businesses out there that are built up over this way. Imagine if the rule was enforced the world over with each bit of commercial software suddenly becoming free for the world use? A lot of unhappy developers yes, but also a lot of people not interested in creating products to work with GPL software.

The time and money that Pearson has invested in Thesis should be rewarded and he's doing that by running a profitable business from it.

Would this also apply to others as well? WooThemes has been built up to be a successful business in the last few years by selling premium Wordpress themes.

@Min Tran: I think any suggestion that software that calls GPL code should also be forced under the GPL is very dangerous ground. While I'm sure those sorts of ideas sound great to people like RMS and would make a bunch of OSS hackers super happy that they finally get to live in a happy free software world... it would ruin everything and kill the GPL in one big swoop.

Just think about the consequences of that logic: You said that every platform that uses GPLed functions should also be required to be GPLed.

This logic would force EVERYTHING to be GPLed. Take Twitter, for example. Their service uses MySQL in certain areas. MySQL uses the GPL license. Since Twitter would be using SQL, which is a standardized interface for retrieving data from MySQL, they would (in effect) be calling GPL functions. Therefor, Twitter would legally be forced to switch to the GPL. Then, since Google and Bing have direct access to Twitter through the Firehose API, that too would be indirectly using GPL-licensed functions and procedures. All of Google and Bing would have to switch to the GPL. Anyone writing software being compiled by gcc would be using GPL functions and would be required to GPL their own code.

If this "GPLed because it calls GPL functions" requirement was truly a legally enforceable constraint, almost every piece of code EVER WRITTEN would instantly fall under the GPL. The GPL is a very pervasive license and GPLed software is running all over the place. If your argument was actually real, every software company on the planet would have to rewrite everything from scratch.

I'm a huge proponent of Open Source and love the freedoms that the GPL has given me, but living in a world where EVERYTHING I write would be forced under the GPL would kill my business. Why use my software-as-a-service when you can just download my source code and put it on your own LAMP stack? Bing would get access to Google's search algorithms and Open Office would finally be able to decode Microsoft Office documents (ok, that last one would be pretty good... :D )

In closing, the things that make the GPL great is that it forces derivative products to also be open source. Licenses like BSD are extremely free and let a commercial company take the source and do whatever they want without returning those improvements to the community. The GPL basically ensures that any improvements to the source are available for everyone to take advantage of. If the GPL was a license that required the entire application stack to also be GPL, it would become worthless to the point of being damaging.

lets not forget that wordpress makes a ton of money. Mullenweg has commercial projects like cnn political tracker, the new york times, etc. They all pay for custom developed, modified versions of wordpress. I dont see those free to any news media source that wants it under a GPL.

I think you are misinterpreting the GPL requirements, you only have to open your source code if you distribute the program. In the case of Automattic's code they have developed for wordpress.com, They are not distributing it and therefor are not required to release it.

For instance, I would be perfectly within the GPL if I created a clone of wordpress.com, developing my own software and never distributed the program. I wouldn't be required to release my software as GPL. The moment I offered the software for distribution, be it for cash or free, I would be required to release under the GPL license.

If I create a theme for my blog, I am not required to release it under the GPL if I don't distribute it.

In regards Eric's "GPLed because it calls GPL functions", the basic test would be can the program (in this case Thesis) stand on its own without the GPL'ed program (Wordpress). It isn't as simple as one closed source program calling a GPL program. It has to do with how the two are integrated and are executed.

The GPL FAQ actually covers quite a bit of this an is probably worth a read. Although most of the FAQ is focused on compiled code so it take some interpretation to apply it to PHP.

Many people do not like the GPL based on the redistribution requirement and avoid releasing software under the license. If you don't agree with a software license then please don't build upon that software.

There is a slight diffeference btw GPL and LGPL
Wordpress is published under GPL
what Thesis is doing is doing works with LGPL, but not with GPL.
Pearson should have thought really well before picking WordPress as his business platform.

he just called it. it basically accepted that what he is doing is ilegal, but nobody will be able to enforce that law. and i have the feeling that someone in the free-software coomunity may take the stand to do it.

lets see what happens..


Sorry, but you didn't understand the implications of releasing software under GPL.

GPL doesn't force anybody to give away software without charging money for it. It just forces you to give everyone who has a copy of the software the right to modify and redistribute the software under the same license.

And software that work as a plugin and can't run on it's own is under the same license. This way the Thesis theme has to be GPL, but not the images and JavaScript files that come with it.

of course you can build a SAAS on top of GPL software and you don't need to redistribute the code.

But if you do so - with or without taking money for the source - you have to give everybody the same rights you had.

"If you do so" means " If you offer your code for download".
Richard, I guess I did sort of imply that GPL = free in my post, but I do understand it isn't totally like that. But releasing under GPL can lead to everybody getting a free copy.

Also, I know you side with Wordpress here. I don't disagree that Pearson is legally in the wrong. I am just not totally convinced that forcing 3rd parties to use the GPL is the best way to go.

This could basically lead into a whole different discussion on what is the most effective way to go about growing an economy. Some say tight regulation is the best way to go while others think the fewer restrictions, the better. (I'm thinking about the philosophical differences between political parties like Republicans and Democrats here in the United States, but the same argument works in this WP vs. Thesis case too.) There are two main schools of thought. I just so happen to think that the best apps and services will win out on their own, without an overarching body to govern.

"I am just not totally convinced that forcing 3rd parties to use the GPL is the best way to go."

I don't believe anyone forced Pearson to build upon GPL software, it was something he chose. Regardless if he understood what it meant at the time, it has since been explained to him and he has a responsibility to abide by the license. Just as I would expect anyone to abide by the license for my own software.

I agree with Brent. No one forces Pearson to follow GPL, he chose to use Wordpress. It's his decision.
OK, I have poked through the tweets, read the posts, listened to the debate bubbling away in the background, and now I have heard both Chris and Matt put their respective sides of the argument. So I now hold, what I would consider to be, at least a semi-informed view on the issue.

I can see both sides of the disagreement, but I have to say, I think Matt's line of reasoning is the better informed, the most public spirited and the one which has already and would continue to benefit the online community the most.

Chris way over-estimates the importance of Thesis to the WordPress community, and his position in that community. Somewhat speciously, he uses this inflated estimate of its worth to argue he should not be subject to a license that was in place long before he built Thesis and upon which he was entitled, in fact as a businessman, obliged, to read and understand before so doing .

I am also astonished at how rude, boorish and over-bearing Chris was in trying to dominate the debate, and had I known his views and understood the issues a little sooner, I would never have bought Thesis.

I wish I could keep my temper in check, as Matt did, but I know myself better than that. So I tried to think what I could do to help, instead of just getting mad, and this is what I decided.

Because of the overriding benefit to the online community, even though he will surely prevail; I don't think Matt should have to put up his own money to fight a law case to prove the validity of the GPL which is, in effect, on our behalf.

Therefore, I think the GPL should be tested another way. If you have bought a version of Thesis from DIY Themes (Chris Pearson’s company), or from any other website, you can click this link now and join the "Thesis Class Action Suit" list at http://virtualcrowds.org/2010/07/thesis-class-action-suit/, and let’s see just how many people agree with Chris, and how many with Matt and the GPL.

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