Throughout GPL Week we’ve dealt with WordPress developers that have adopted the GPL for their products. Today, we’re going to talk to someone who not only refused to use the license, but has been a vocal opponent of it.
Chris Pearson, the creator of the Thesis theme, has spoken out several times against use of the GPL and has even gotten into a few public exchanges with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg over the subject.
Never one to shy away from stating his opinion, I was excited when Chris agreed to a brief interview. I was hoping for some fireworks and as you can see from the title, I wasn’t disappointed.
Chris, let’s jump right into this. Thesis is NOT licensed under the GPL and you’ve been very vocal about that. Why did you resist the lure when so many other theme devs made the switch?
From the onset, I intended for Thesis to be a sustainable product. I knew that I wanted to build a business around it, but more important, I was trying to solve a very specific problem with my business model. Before launching Thesis, I had become extremely disenchanted with income models that trade time for money, and I viewed Thesis as a vehicle that I could use to “rise above” this unfortunate scenario. For all intents and purposes, Thesis solved these problems within a few months after launch—long before the GPL issue ever reared its ugly, ill-informed head.
Now, let’s examine the GPL for a second. Although it covers other issues as well, the GPL basically stipulates that anyone can take your code and do whatever they want with it…legally. In other words, the GPL is legal castration for anyone who is trying to run a business that is in any way reliant upon unique, innovative code.
Couple this with the fact that I’d already been ripped off by a few imitators who were trying to use my work to gain attention for themselves (people had basically lifted Thesis’ HTML + CSS in the name of the GPL and had attempted to give it away for free), and this was strike one against the GPL, at least from my perspective. Obviously, if I’m going to run a sustainable business, I can’t have people ripping me off and distributing my work for free.
Although the GPL says nothing about “free versus paid,” it’s undeniable that the WordPress GPL environment has created an atmosphere where free is championed and paid products are often demonized. This is why you didn’t see any premium themes or plugins until late 2007, and this is a huge reason why the GPL debate still rages on today.
As I mentioned earlier, I was trying to achieve sustainability with Thesis, and in order to do so, I had to work against the prevailing sentiment that everything should be free. Therefore, ensuring that people were not freely distributing my work was of the highest importance to me. As I see it, licensing Thesis under the GPL would totally undermine this goal and give those same people who ripped me off a legal backing for doing so! Do you hear that? It’s the sound of an obvious, epic FAIL.
Also, I had to consider the fact that I am (and have been since 2006) a leading presence in the WordPress theme development community. My work has always received a lot of attention and scrutiny, and that has made it a prime target for copycats and people who are out to make a buck as easily as possible. In situations like this, the GPL gives all the power to the “little guy” while robbing the true innovators of any protection whatsoever. I’m an innovator, my work is creative, and the GPL is NOT on my side here; this is strike two for the GPL.
Finally, let’s talk about how the GPL breaks down in the face of a solid economic model. At its core, the GPL aims to improve/increase/extend software distribution, all under the premise that “software for everyone” is going to make the world a better place. In theory, that sounds good, but in practice, something very different happens.
In an environment where distribution happens at a breakneck pace, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish a product on the basis of anything other than attention. The public gets accustomed to having “solutions” delivered here and now, and developers modify their practices to respond accordingly. Ultimately, what happens is that products get delivered to market more quickly, and people compete on the basis of attention rather than on the true merits of their products.
The phrase “quality takes time” is especially appropriate here, because that’s a formula that never changes. Unfortunately, software development is more tied to the laws of supply and demand than it is to a pursuit of the highest quality results, and the GPL plays on this in the most destructive possible way. By creating an environment of unrestricted distribution and huge scale, the GPL increases market demand by a significant factor.
Increased market demand (especially the unnatural, inorganic increase that comes about as a result of free) causes most suppliers to do what seems natural—increase their supply. However, quality still takes time, and in order to keep up with increased demand, quality suffers in the face of getting a product to market and getting that much-needed attention in a competitive marketplace.
Over a protracted time scale, nothing is more important to sustainability and efficiency than the QUALITY of the results we produce today. In the end, this is why Thesis is not and will never be GPL.
Do you still get heat about switching to GPL now that so many other theme dev’s seem to have grown disillusioned with it?
I am extremely vocal about my distaste for the GPL and my choice to avoid it, and I think just about everyone who knows me is aware of my position on the matter. As a result, almost nobody says a word to me about the GPL anymore 😀
What would your advice be to someone considering the GPL for their work?
If you intend to release your work for free, don’t care about the fact that you created the work, and have no plans to drown yourself in product support, then I think releasing it under the GPL is totally fine. Honestly, most of the stuff that gets put under the GPL (plugins, themes without options, etc) is so inconsequential that it really doesn’t matter anyway.
Basically, if you’re serious about having a real, sustainable product, then the GPL is not for you; otherwise, go nuts!
Which side of the GPL debate do you think will win out in the marketplace where it matters most?
Despite the fact that people want everything right now and for free, QUALITY is what wins in the end. My position on the GPL is the one that will win out in the end, simply because I’m focusing on the things that matter on a scale that transcends any scale that the GPL attempts to achieve.
Call it a hunch but I think this interview is going to elicit a few responses. So, rather than giving you my opinion on the interview, I’m giving you the floor.
Is Chris right about the role of the GPL? Is it “legal castration”? Can you create a sustainable business while using the general public license? Let’s hear what you have to say via the comment form below!