Matt's dual responsibilities will eventually conflict

Why Matt Should Resign

by Ben Cook on May 21, 2010

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.

WordPress Foundation

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!

The Conflict

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, for example, are now competing with 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 don’t cut into their profit margins. On the other hand, 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 from using the WordPress trademark or should the WordPress Foundation help promote the valuable service 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.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Ahmad May 21, 2010 at 1:40 pm

You are a genuine *******. Simple and short. The whole blog is filled with Stupidity. Came here from a twitter link and wasted my 5 minutes. That’s it.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Are you denying that the conflict of interest exists or are you just blindly following Automattic and assuming they’d never do anything that strictly benefits them and not the community?

Michael Atkins May 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm

I disagree. Remember what happened when Mambo was forked to Joomla.

If Matt goes power crazy and acts against the best interests of the WP community, the non-automattic core devs would be able to fork WordPress as it is GPL. Lets cross that bridge when & if it arises. I doubt it will and hope it doesn’t.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Michael, the majority of core team is made up of Automattic employees who face the same conflict of interest although on a lesser scale since Matt wields the most power.

And just because (in your opinion) it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable situation. WordPress shouldn’t have to be forked. It simply shouldn’t be controlled by those who have Automattic’s best interest in mind.

This is the part of the show that all the other non-Automattic contributors to WordPress get upset and argue that Automattic isn’t We can argue that another day but there’s no doubt that Matt IS the WordPress Foundation.

The conflict between that role and his role at Automattic is both blindingly clear, and completely unacceptable.

He needs to do the right thing here.

Ken Newman May 21, 2010 at 3:33 pm

There’s not a valid point anywhere in this post; utter waste of time.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Ken, which points exactly aren’t valid in your opinion? You don’t think Matt is responsible for Automattic making a profit? Or can you never forsee a situation in which that would conflict with the best interests of the WordPress community?

Kevin Muldoon May 21, 2010 at 4:06 pm

I really don’t think there is a conflict of interests. Matt has been the driving force behind WordPress from day 1 and is still the guy pushing it forward. Not only that, he is the one who is pushing for the gpl license to be standard.

I honestly don’t think there’s a conflict of interests here.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm

@Kevin, Matt being the driving force behind WordPress has nothing to do with the discussion.

The point is, his duties to Automattic expose him to direct conflicts of interest while running the WordPress foundation.

Automattic is a business and it IS out to make billions of dollars. That’s the point of it.

If a company or decision about WordPress threatens to cut into Automattic’s bottom line, Matt’s responsibility to the company would demand that he try to prevent that.

That is why he shouldn’t be in the position in the WordPress Foundation to dictate decisions and rules.

It’s tantamount to allowing BP to set the regulations on oil drilling.

Dan May 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I have to agree with previous posters that this post is a bit pointless, of course it’s possible for Matt to do as he wishes, but he’s not exactly going to start charging to use WordPress and make billions. This article is a bit of a fearmonger…

Robert Chambers May 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Congratulations on achieving your desired result – plenty of exposure.

3.0 looks like an amazing update that will be taking WordPress to another level. Why would we want the leader of an organisation that is moving forward to resign? We are lucky to have Matt.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm

@Robert, if Matt doesn’t want to resign from the WordPress Foundation, he could also remove himself from his position at Automattic.

I’m not picky.

Whether 3.0 is a great update or not (I’m VERY excited about it) doesn’t change the fact that an obvious conflict of interest exists.

That conflict is what needs to be removed.

Kevin Muldoon May 21, 2010 at 5:02 pm

@Ben I think it does have something to do with it. Matt is still pushing wordpress forward, still trying to make it a better script. If there was a real conflict of interests then he could not do this. But, in my opinion there’s no conflict of interest here. Suggesting that he needs to quite WordPress is just ludicrous.

Kevin Muldoon May 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

p.s. WordPress 3.0 beta is already out (has been for a month or so). You can download and try it out

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 5:15 pm

@Kevin, do my examples not seem plausible?

You seem to be suggesting that Matt could not make any decision that would be bad for the community since he’s still pushing and promoting WordPress. Is that what you’re saying?

In some regards Automattic and the WordPress Foundation’s goals line up well. For example, both entities benefit from having more WordPress users. Better features and an improved product further that goal for both Automattic and the WPF.

However, something like preventing an Automattic competitor from sponsoring a WordCamp or having a theme or plugin in the repository wouldn’t necessarily result in fewer WordPress users or impact the core features (thus harming Automattic’s interests). However, it would still be doing a disservice to the community.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 5:16 pm

@Kevin, yeah I’ve downloaded it & played with it a bit. Will wait for official release before developing w/ it though.

Rarst May 21, 2010 at 5:26 pm

>You seem to be suggesting that Matt could not make any decision that would be bad for the community

It amazes me but it seems commonly accepted that it’s not Matt is [not] in line with community, but actual inclusion in community is defined as fitting into Matt’s views.

Instead of accepting the fact that WordPress community is neither clearly defined or homogeneous it is being virtually split into “good community” in line with Automattic and “harmful (in Matt’s own word) community” whose interests are evil and unworthy.

Such split is clear sign that conflict of interests is not only possible but clearly happening for some time already.

Kevin Muldoon May 21, 2010 at 5:40 pm

@Ben WordCamps already do get sponsored from a range of companies, so how can you say Automattic would stop it.

Check out any wordcamp site to see this (e.g.

The way I see it, Automattic owns and operates however they do contribute heavily to too. You need to remember is open source.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 5:53 pm

@Kevin, I didn’t say Automattic WOULD I said Matt COULD if he chose to do so.

And yes, is open source, but as I mention in the article, this is about the WordPress Foundation which is run by Matt.

DWcourse May 21, 2010 at 6:06 pm

I’m sure there are valid arguments why Matt SHOULD wear both hats, I just haven’t heard them expressed. Sorry but I don’t find “You are a genuine *******”, “utter waste of time” or “fearmonger” to be very compelling arguments.

Kevin Muldoon May 21, 2010 at 6:17 pm


haha what’s the point in wondering about a ‘hypothetical situation’ like that. I could understand the question if WordCamp were only sponsored by Automattic but they are not. From the start they have been sponsored by many companies and there is nothing to suggest this is not going to continue.

Yes Matt could choose to prevent other companies from sponsoring WordCamps. He could also choose to completely sack all of his employees, sell Automattic to Google or quit the business and travel the world.

My point is, you can’t say that he must resign because of hypothetical ifs and buts. I really don’t think there is any conflict of interest however if there was, I don’t think Matt has done anything in the past to suggest that him or his company would take advantage of it.

Take a look at It clearly states that it is a charitable project. They also clearly state that they want all projects to be GPL, which isn’t very commercial in my opinion. Is it?

I’m sorry. I really believe you are out of touch with this. Automattic have done wonders for the open source community. To sugest Matt needs to resign because Automattic want to expand and sell a few commercial products is absurd.

Kevin Muldoon May 21, 2010 at 6:23 pm


A valid argument for why he should wear both hats?

1) He’s good at what he does

2) It’s his company, his decision.

Dre Armeda May 21, 2010 at 7:15 pm

@Kevin Muldoon

+1 🙂

@Ben Cook

“However, something like preventing an Automattic competitor from sponsoring a WordCamp or having a theme or plugin in the repository wouldn’t necessarily result in fewer WordPress users or impact the core features (thus harming Automattic’s interests). However, it would still be doing a disservice to the community.”

Really? Hasn’t happened to date, and will not happen anytime soon. The only potential for being blackballed from a WordCamp is being non-compliant with GPL (Thesis supporters), and still unlikely. Worst case scenerio for a WordCamp organizer, is they don’t get support from Automattic to run the event because they knowingly allow this to happen.

I would leave the hypothetical’s on the shelf for now and speak to the facts. If the day comes that a true conflict of interest arises, and Matt goes bananas, re-release an edited version of your post, I’ll retweet it.

Ben Wilks May 21, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Admit it, your jealous and slightly clueless as to how business works. If you want to play sherrif, go start your own biz, become a charity and dartboard! See how you go.

Ben Cook May 21, 2010 at 11:50 pm

@Dre even if nothing has happened yet, it will at some point. The what ifs I put forward are perfectly reasonable scenarios that could easily happen.

Blindly sticking our heads in the sand and denying that anything could ever go wrong is idiotic and foolish.

The potential to get blackballed from a WordCamp is infinite since the WordPress foundation can set any rules they want. So far they’ve only gone after “non-GPL compliant people” which I addressed in my post yesterday. However, if a serious competitor threatened Automattic’s revenue streams, Matt wouldn’t be doing his job for Automattic if he didn’t consider any and all options to help combat that.

It boils down to the fact that man cannot serve two masters. Either he’s compromising the needs of one to serve the other, or he’s not doing the most he can to serve either.

@Ben next time try to even come close to addressing the topic at hand. It will help you avoid making an ass of yourself.

Dre Armeda May 22, 2010 at 1:22 am

Ben, When did I debate the scenarios you posed are unreasonable? I merely pointed out that your WordCamp what if is unlikely and you should stick to the facts.

We’re not all foolish birds. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think people are also aware that meteors can hit Earth and destroy our civilization as we know it. That doesn’t mean we go around wearing tin foil hats in hopes that we’ll be salvaged IF it happens (at least most of us don’t.) Quit being so negative.

Potential? Please reread my last paragraph. I will add one point – the percentage of risk can never be zero, and although things may be possible, they aren’t always probable.

Business will be is business, and I’ve seen the kindest of intentions turn evil over night. We can imagine and speculate whatever we want, but at the end of the day Matt has done a great job making Automattic profitable, while simultaneously fostering game changing growth for what’s arguably the best publishing platform in existence.

I see no reason to look at things as if the glass were half empty.

I hope you have a great weekend.

Fresh out of Aluminum

hakre June 7, 2010 at 6:39 am

You must have made something right if this caused so many “angry” reactions. I can only assume that some people have a problem seeing “power” and “property” strictly on topic and to openly talk about where conflict of interests can be or turn out.

Every bit of serious information and discussion on this topic is worth to be made and provided. There are black and grey areas of larger size and when shed some light into you might see a shadow that looks like a cowering Matt.

Will Matt take over WordPress? I do not know. Will WordPress take over him? Probably.

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