Neither WordPress nor Automattic would be where they are today without the tireless efforts of Matt Mullenweg. I have personally benefited from his work and for that I’m truly thankful.
That said, it’s time for Matt to resign from either the WordPress Foundation or Automattic.
The reason is fairly simple, there’s a glaring conflict of interest.
Automattic is the for profit company Matt co-founded which provides several WordPress related services such as premium WordPress hosting, Akismet and VaultPress, a security and backup service for WordPress blogs.
The company has raised over $30 million from investors and, as co-founder, Matt is ultimately responsible to make sure Automattic earns a profit for those investors.
Simply put, Automattic, like every other business, has to make money and it’s Matts job to make that happen.
The WordPress Foundation, on the other hand, is a non-profit organization intended to “further the mission of the WordPress” and “be responsible for protecting the WordPress … related trademarks.”
As Matt has admitted on several occasions it is not intended to fix the “Matt runs everything” issue.
However, the fact that even Matt acknowledges there is such an issue should invoke memories of the “Danger, Will Robinson!” robot.
While it might seem like a minor thing, controlling the trademark of several WordPress related terms makes the foundation a very powerful entity.
Imagine if a company offering WordPress related services were prevented from using the phrase WordPress!
Automattic has enjoyed a long run as a monopoly in several service areas, but challengers are springing up all over as the number of WordPress users continues to grow.
Companies like Page.ly, for example, are now competing with WordPress.com in the premium WordPress hosting market.
The BackupBuddy plugin by PluginBuddy offers many of the same features Automattic’s newest service, VaultPress offers.
Matt owes it to Automattic’s investors to ensure new competitors like Page.ly don’t cut into their profit margins. On the other hand, Page.ly is perfectly GPL compliant and a valuable resource to the community the WordPress Foundation is supposed to serve.
Should Matt protect his investors and prevent Page.ly from using the WordPress trademark or should the WordPress Foundation help promote the valuable service Page.ly provides to the community?
I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have to make that decision.
Jane Wells, an Automattic employee caused an uproar earlier this week by declaring all “non-GPL-compliant people” ineligible to sponsor, organize, or speak at WordCamp events.
Since WordCamp is one of the trademarks owned by the WordPress Foundation, they can pretty much set any rule they want about who can and can’t participate.
Keeping only Automattic’s goals in mind, it would be foolish to allow a competitor to gain publicity by organizing, speaking at, or sponsoring a WordCamp event.
By contrast, it would an enormous disservice to the community if Matt used the WordPress Foundation’s trademarks to prevent Automattic competitors from participating.
Unfortunately for Matt, there are countless more perfectly plausible situations where Automattic and the WordPress Foundation’s interests would conflict.
Solution: Remove the Conflict
In government there are rules and regulations to prevent conflicts of interest like this from arising. When people write the rules for the industries and companies they’re financially invested in, we tend to wind up paying $30,000 for a toilet seat.
I should note that Matt seems to have tip-toed across this ethical tight-rope successfully – so far. But, as the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and no one is perfect.
Eventually Matt will find himself faced with a decision that will hurt either the community or his company’s bottom line. I have no idea which side he’ll come down on but I do know one thing…
He shouldn’t be put in that position in the first place.
It’s time for Matt to do the right thing and remove himself from this obvious and dangerous conflict of interest.