You’ll never guess, but the GPL has caused yet another controversy to erupt within the WordPress community. You’re surprised right? Yeah me neither.
So for those of you who haven’t been paying attention (read as: had something better to do) I’m going to try and summarize the events over the last few days as concisely as possible. I’m also going to strive to keep my opinion out of it as much as possible since there will be plenty of time for me to rant on that later.
So let’s get started…
It has long been Matt Mullenweg’s contention that all plugins and themes developed to work with WordPress should inherit the General Public License (GPL) which WordPress is licensed under. They are, in his estimation, derivative works, and as such should be released under the GPL or a GPL-compatible license.
Naturally, there are those who disagree. Chris Pearson, the creator of the Thesis theme, is one of those people. As a result, he licensed his theme under a different and non-GPL compatible license.
Note: The issue of debate is not for or against the GPL as a license. The issue is whether the GPL requires themes to inherit the same license, or not. While it’s much easier to classify the debate as pro or anti-GPL, that’s an oversimplification and skews the issue. Few if any people are arguing against the GPL as a whole.
The initial spark for this latest explosion was Automattic CEO, Toni Schneider, kicking WordPress consultant Bill Erickson out of the CodePoet directory for supporting Thesis.
Bill then posted the expulsion on Flickr. Mullenweg left a comment on the image accused Pearson of having “verbally abused a female community member at a conference yesterday” (even though that female member, Jane Wells denies being abused), accused Pearson’s company, DIYthemes, of “break[ing] the law” and recommended that Pearson leave the WordPress community.
Mullenweg then took the fight to twitter saying:
Those tweets, along with the accusations left on Flickr were like a spark hitting a gasoline soaked pile of rags…
Matt quickly followed up his barbs with his first (of many) offers to buy a Thesis user any other premium theme as long as it was licensed under the GPL.
As frequent readers of this blog know, I’m never one to shy away from sharing my opinion. However, I didn’t expect my tweet to illicit Mullenweg to state a lawsuit against DIYthemes was allegedly being planned.
As anyone who knows Pearson will tell you, it was only a matter of time before he responded. That led to this exchange between he and Mullenweg.
After several more shots were volleyed back and forth, both Chris and Matt agreed to be interviewed on Mixergy. Andrew Warner did a great job of moderating what was obviously a very passionate discussion.
Note: I’ll embed the video as soon as I can get it to work.
It’s interested to note that it seems this interview has been many people’s starting point when trying to figure out what this whole argument has been about. If viewed in isolation I don’t think Chris comes off all that well. He’s obviously worked up, while Matt is for the most part calm and collected. However, when viewed in light of the interactions that led up to the interview, it becomes clear both sides are heavily and emotionally invested in the debate.
A Proxy War
When two personalities as large as Pearson & Mullenweg clash so publicly, there’s never a shortage of people eager to chime in. Almost immediately the #thesiswp Twitter hash tag stream became over-run with people voicing their opinions on the issue.
Countless posts have been written on the topic in support of both sides of the issue, an incredible volume of tweets have gone back and forth, with Mullenweg and Pearson encouraging their supporters through liberal use of retweets.
In fact, Mullenweg has gone so retweet-crazy it prompted Lisa Barone to tweet the following:
The anti-Thesis horde was invigorated when developer Drew Blas ran a comparison of Thesis and WordPress’ code and found several snippets of WordPress’ code that were copied by Thesis.
Whether those snippets constitute plagiarism or simply fair use became the hot topic and the argument flared up with renewed vigor while the issue of GPL-inheritance seemed to take a back seat.
Pearson was quick to track down the code to former employee Rick Beckman who admitted to using copied code in this tweet:
While Pearson has vowed to remove the code before releasing Thesis 1.8 from beta, there are those suggesting that the codes’ inclusion poisons all of Thesis as inheriting the GPL until the entire theme is re-written. Beckman, for his part doesn’t exactly appear shaken up by his role in the dispute.
Editorial Note: I know I said I wouldn’t do many of these, but this seems like a scary situation for any software developers out there. Can one rogue employee effectively nullify your license by slipping in chunks of GPL code? Could a hacker break in and distribute a copy of your software including GPL code thus forcing an entire re-write or GPL adoption? Would Pearson have recourse to sue Beckman? It seems I’m full of questions but few answers.
As is so often the case with online flame wars, very little has actually been accomplished. Matt Mullenweg has re-issued his threat to sue DIYthemes several different times, although as of yet, nothing has been filed. He’s also continued to be very vocal about his offer to give any Thesis prospect or user a GPL premium theme of their choice at no cost. I’ve not been able to confirm whether any of those themes have actually been purchased, or what the users are required to do in exchange for the theme.
Chris Pearson has vowed to remove the copied snippets of WordPress code from Thesis before releasing version 1.8. While the anti-Thesis mob seems to be having some success inspiring uncertainty amongst Thesis users, even if a lawsuit were filed, it would have little to no impact on Thesis users. The Thesis theme remains, in my opinion, the most flexible WordPress theme on the market and until a better option emerges, I plan on continuing to use it as my primary theme on all my WordPress projects.
One interesting development of note is that Headway has made the decision to dual split license their theme to adhere to the Software Freedom Law Center’s interpretation of the GPL requirements. While Headway’s creators had been vocal GPL-inheritance opponents in the past, the attacks Thesis is sustaining as well as the possibility of having Mullenweg purchase and then give away copies of your theme has to be a powerful incentive from a business perspective.
Note: Sorry for any confusion. The appropriate term is split licensed, not dual licensed as previously stated. Mark and Andreas explain the difference in the comments below.
Personally I expect the issue to slowly burn out over the weekend. Even given the strong rhetoric from both sides I would be surprised to see a lawsuit actually happen. I would also be shocked to see Thesis adopt the GPL or even dual license it’s theme. But no matter what happens from here on out, I’ll try to keep things summarized here so be sure to check back often.
Other Relevant Reading:
- WordPress GPL Feud (Again)
- Thesis + GPL + WordPress = Pain
- WordPress, Thesis, GPL, and premium themes
- WordPress Thesis Conflict Highlights GPL Nuances
- Chris Pearson vs Matt Mullenweg (big thanks for the amazing Twitter Blackbird Pie WordPress plugin)
- Matt Mullenweg Fouls His Nest & Undermines His Credibility (a great read)
- The GPL is Marxist