WordPress GPL Tyrany

GPL Propaganda: First They Came for…

by Ben Cook on May 20, 2010

They first came for the Theme Developers,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Theme Developer.

Then they came for the Plugin Developers,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Plugin Developer.

Then they came for the Sponsors,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Sponsor.

Then they came for the Speakers,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Speaker.

Then they came for me —
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

While the original version of this statement is about a much more serious and heinous situation, the principle behind it is often applicable to situations much less drastic and detestable.

Today, for example, yet another volley was fired by Jane Wells in WordPress’ ongoing war against many members of its own community. While it might not yet impact you, it should absolutely concern you.

“Non-GPL-Compliant People”

As of today, any person or company that is in “violation of the WordPress license [read as not GPL compliant] cannot be accepted as event organizers or sponsors” of any WordCamp conference.

It should be noted that many reasonable people, disagree with Matt’s assertion that themes automatically inherit the GPL license. And if Matt’s wrong, most premium themes actually ARE GPL compliant.

Now, the WordCamp trademark is owned by the WordPress Foundation which is run by WordPress creator and Automattic founder, Matt Mullenweg. That means they can pretty much do whatever they want and set any kind of requirements they’d like.

While this might not seem like an issue that’s important to you, it becomes much more troubling when viewed in the context of past decisions and remarks.

A Declaration of Grievances

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s run down the list of grievances. In as close to chronological order as I can remember, they are:

  • Sponsored themes are removed from WordPress.org. Many were perfectly GPL compliant but included links to sponsors which Matt deemed unacceptable despite plenty of community feedback to the contrary.
  • Over 200 GPL licensed themes are removed from the WordPress repository. Why? Because they supported sites that promoted non-GPL content. The themes were licensed under the GPL, but the sites that created them offered (or in some cases just had ads for) products that weren’t licensed under the GPL.
  • Matt calls non-GPL licensed themes “evil.” For all you Automattic supporters out there that have criticized the way I make my arguments (ZOMG you’re too mean!) calling things evil is pretty harsh language that draws a “good vs. evil” line in the sand.
  • A GPL licensed theme is rejected by the repository simply because the creator’s site mentioned the Thesis theme (not GPL licensed) and ThemeForest (whose themes are all dual licensed to be perfectly compatible with the GPL but does not meet the new “everything must be GPL” rule Matt instated).
  • Matt got a lawyer from the Software Freedom Law Center to weigh in on the theme GPL issue. Now, I know this might come as a shock to you, but the lawyer says PHP portions of themes inherit the GPL while the CSS and images do not.
  • WordPress.org begins actively promoting premium theme companies that license themes under 100% GPL while excluding other GPL compatible (according to the Software Freedom Law Center lawyer) and non-GPL competitors.
  • Announcement made that WordCamps can no longer accept “non-GPL-compliant people” as speakers, sponsors, or organizers. Jane apparently means people or companies that don’t comply with Matt Mullenweg’s interpretation of the GPL but doesn’t feel the need to clarify that since Matt’s word is law when it comes to anything WordPress related.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this progression fairly disturbing. Matt Mullenweg decides themes inherit the GPL and despite valid legal opinions to the contrary, begins demonizing anyone that dares disagree with him.

If you dare have the audacity to license your theme the way you see fit, you’re not only banned from having any of your work in WordPress’ repository, but anyone who supports your product is banned as well!

Want to sponsor or speak at a WordCamp? Sorry, you’ve been banned from that as well.

While there’s no official criteria that I know of, I’d imagine you’re not eligible to become a member of the core development team unless you buy into Matt’s interpretation of the GPL.

Who Will They “Come For” Next?

Phrases like “in spirit” or “supporting the philosophy” are being thrown around and guilt by association is a reality when it comes to the theme repository. What’s the next step in this fanatical, quasi-religious crusade against those who dare oppose Matt’s interpretation of the license?

Will we be banned from submitting tickets or reporting bugs? Will our accounts be banned in the WordPress.org forum? Will linking to a non-GPL licensed theme on Twitter prevent your theme from being accepted in the repository?

If you’ve licensed your code under the GPL but are a vocal opponent of the license, are you banned as well?

Aaron Brazell (a WordPress core contributor), recently said writing code for WordPress’ core or creating GPL plugins is the only way to contribute to the WordPress community.

Given the progression of decisions covered in this post it seems clear Matt Mullenweg doesn’t want any dissenters participating in the community.

Then again, dictators rarely do.

image source: aka_lusi

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron Brazell May 20, 2010 at 9:37 am

I’m not a core dev. I’m a core contributor. There’s a difference.

Ben Cook May 20, 2010 at 10:28 am

Ah, sure enough. Fixing that error now.

Jen Kaufman Designs May 20, 2010 at 1:55 pm

WordPress is highly controlled in this area, but I guess those that don’t like it have other options. Develop a competing product; host your own conference; etc.

If Matt is going to make the rules so tight, side-step them altogether… More power to you if you’re able to do it successfully.

Ben Cook May 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm

@Jen my point is that they’re waging a campaign of ideological purification against a significant number of community members. For a community that’s supposed to be about freedom and openness, I find it highly hypocritical.

David May 20, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Seriously this is disgusting. When will this end ?

Jean-Baptiste Jung May 20, 2010 at 4:47 pm

I love WordPress, but – call me an anarchist if you want – I hate rules, licences, laws and all that stuff.

Everyone should have the right to do things like he wants. If someone wants to sell a non-GPL WP theme, what’s wrong with that?

I love the fact that WP and many themes/plugins are GPL, but forcing GPL is not, IMHO, a good solution.

Ben Cook May 20, 2010 at 4:56 pm

@david, my guess is it will end when a court case somewhere decides whether or not the GPL applies to themes. Until then, it appears Matt will enforce his interpretation and attempt to exile those who disagree.

Corey Freeman - Simple Blog Coach May 20, 2010 at 5:35 pm

This whole thing makes no sense to me, personally. From what I can even interpret, the premise of the GPL license itself is confusing. You can sell the plugin but you can also get it for free and they’re just selling support and the images are yours but the code is public….wha?

Tack on Matt & company skewing the already somewhat confusing premise to fit their needs and it’s a mad house…I agree with Jean-Baptiste Jung. Let people do what they want with their own stuff.

And the fact that they are turning away speakers and sponsors (Free money and legitimate expertise!) is completely ridiculous.

I like the idea of hosting your own event. I’m gunna add that to the to-do list. 😛

Matt May 20, 2010 at 6:15 pm

You know how I feel about this, and it’s not good.

kristarella May 20, 2010 at 7:54 pm

The kinds of questions raised in Carl’s comment on Jane’s blog post are the ones that come to mind for me. What are “non-GPL-compliant people”. Will it extend to the users of the products they consider to be non-compliant, even though as users they cannot go against a license just by using a product, since the license is specific to distribution?

Also, it’d be nice if they could make their mind up as to how products violate the GPL. Is it by linking (which is only mentioned in the GPL FAQ, not the license itself) or by being a derivative.

They have a right to accept sponsorship from who they want and deny sponsorship from whoever they want, I think that’s fair. In terms of speakers, I think it should be the topics that are regulated more than the speakers themselves. It would be confusing to have someone speak on a topic that goes against the developers of WordPress beliefs, but it would be a shame to deny useful learning on a topic that you do agree on, even if you disagree on other things.

Scott Ellis May 21, 2010 at 10:18 am

I read this post (not mine) http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/10-things-julius-caesar-could-have-taught-us-about-business-marketing-leadership-and-even-social-media/ and one quote made me think of this post (the one we’re reading) … I’ll save you a click but #2 specifically states “People want to be led, not controlled.”

That quote really reminded me of what Automattic and Co. seem to be doing, crossing the line from leading the WP community to trying to control it.

It’s part of the reason I got involved with organizing OpenCamp (openca.mp). We’ll do it the way we want and have a solid WordPress track (along side many other good tracks). The reality is that even if the WordPress foundation trademarked “WordCamp” it really doesn’t matter, a) Because it’s been used in the public domain for sometime and you have to actively defend a TM, not come along and claim it after the fact (but consult your attorney if you want more info) and b) they don’t actually support the events in any meaningful way (no money, assistance with sponsorships…) so it’s even more frustrating to see them try to impose “rule”.

I would be very surprised to see any court cases around any of this anytime soon, I think it could very easily destroy the community they have always said they wanted to build.

It’s unfortunate b/c WP is a great platform but this ideological stuff has to stop.

Stephen Cronin May 23, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Well, not that I have a lot many followers, but as I just tweeted, WordPress is commiting a form of censorship (telling people not to write about non-GPL products on THEIR blogs if they want to be included in the repository, etc).

Kind of ironic given Matt’s very public stance about how WordPress didn’t cave into censorship demands from foreign governments.

But I guess censorship is cool when defending the GPL, so that’s okay…

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