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Wordpress, Thesis and the GPL Smackdown
Chris and Matt head to head

 1:28 am on Jul 21, 2010 (gmt 0)

So a dog fight has broken out in the Wordpress community, if you haven't noticed.

Matt Mullenweg, after review by various legal experts, is sticking to his guns that themes and plugins that "extend" Wordpress violates the GPL if they are not themselves distributed under the GPL. Matt has gone so far as to post this on Twitter:

Just to reiterate, if anyone wants to try a premium GPL #thesiswp alternative I'll buy them a copy. [ma.tt...] Please RT

-- source: [twitter.com...]

To which Chris responds
Hey @photomatt, I'm no lawyer, and I never said anything about my understanding of the GPL. All I said is that it does not apply to me.

So Andrew Warner got them together for a face-to-face debate.

Matt's position: the license is clear and if you want to extend WP, you have to abide by that license, and premium themes are covered by that rule. Other premium theme authors like Brian Gardner have gone GPL and Thesis should too.

Chris's position: Thesis is not an extension or derivative of Wordpress and therefore doesn't need to abide by the GPL

Choice quote
I think just one way to test it is, you know, take a screenshot of a website running WordPress without Thesis and then take a screenshot of a website running Thesis without WordPress.

Full interview:



 12:25 am on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)


Tweets from @pearsonfied:

Friends and lovers: Thesis now sports a split GPL license. Huzzah for harmony! #thesiswp

@tomoswyn It has no practical implications for 99.9% of people. It just means the PHP is GPLv2 and the CSS, JS, and images are proprietary.

From Matt:
Thrilled, however, that #thesiswp is now legal and in compliance, I hope this encourages others to fully embrace the GPL.


 1:13 am on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Chalk this one up as a victory for the free software movement: Thesis, the wildly popular proprietary WordPress theme from developer/designer Chris Pearson, is now available under a split GPL, the license that makes it possible to alter and redistribute this software as you see fit.


Thesis was being sold for $87 per copy under a more conventional license, even though it used and referenced GPL-licensed code. And for whatever reason, we didnít hear too much about this single WordPress theme from day to day, even as it grew to become quite a money maker for Pearson.


So the Thesis guys were making $87 per copy for a couple years during which time they were not compliant with the GPL. I've heard nothing about Matt planning to sue them for damages and don't really expect to. Seems pretty nice of him to me since it would be within his rights.
In fact, instead of going to court they battled it out on Twitter.
And found a solution!


 1:32 am on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

I've heard nothing about Matt planning to sue them

I saw one of the principal developers say that the consensus in the core group was, as Matt said in the Mixergy interview, that they didn't want to sue. They would rather spend their time writing code, so they were asking not so nicely for theme authors to go GPL.

By the way, this wasn't just a Thesis thing. This affected the Genesis theme, the Headway theme and a bunch of others who kept the whole thing a lot more low key.


 9:21 am on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

re Chalk this one up as a victory for the free software movement:

More of a phyric victory as this means no one will use WP for developing sites - Steve Balmer must be breaking out the Champaign over this one.

Wonder how the people who ponied up $millions feel about Matt shooting their investment in the foot like this.


 3:03 pm on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

>>as this means no one will use WP for developing sites?

How so? Again, these are the same license restrictions that Drupal and Joomla impose and they seem to be doing okay.

travelin cat

 7:04 pm on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Looks like the maker of Thesis is now backing down:


[edited by: travelin_cat at 7:05 pm (utc) on Jul 23, 2010]


 7:04 pm on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Wonder how the people who ponied up $millions feel about Matt shooting their investment in the foot like this.

They probably feel like complete idiots for not consulting a lawyer first and also feel extremely lucky that they are not getting sued and that they'll get to keep making money selling Thesis.

Your 'shooting in the foot' analogy was close but a little off, more like the Thesis authors shot themselves in the foot and then put that foot in their mouths.



 7:09 pm on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

>>Steve Balmer must be breaking out the Champaign

What competing product does Microsoft have? Why is he breaking out champagne? Maybe the guys over at Moveable Type, but I don't see the connection with Steve Balmer.


 10:35 pm on Jul 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

PS - with all the power of Wordpress.org, Wordpress.com and all of Automattic behind him, if Matt's goal were to put Chris Pearson out of business, he could easily do it Bill Gates style.

It would have taken him nothing to create or get a theme created with all the Thesis functionality and just wrap it into Wordpress for free.


 10:21 am on Jul 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

The "does it work without wordpress" argument doesn't fly, because if you applied it across the board, operating systems would own every program that is OS specific. Anything that is written specifically for Windows would be derivative of windows; anything written for Linux would be derivative of linux, etc.
So we already have a model for things that run on other things, yet they are independent in terms of intellectual property: operating systems.


 6:15 am on Jul 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

Actually callivert, that issue has been debated extensively. It explains why some software, like Apache avoid the GPL altogether, using something like the Apache License, PHP License, LGPL or a BSD style license. It's specifically to avoid the situation where you can't use the tool at all to create something non-GPL.

Code compiled with a GPL compiler to run using standard system calls is not considered to be a derivative work. I can commonly compile a program with a different compiler on a different OS. So I might be able to use, I don't know, a Borland C compiler on a BSD machine and have the program work just as if I compiled it with GCC on a Linux machine.

The more debated issue is Linux Kernel Modules... but let's not go there.


 11:34 pm on Aug 1, 2010 (gmt 0)

Rats, I was hoping this was going to go to court. I really would have liked to see a judge rule on this. I can't help but think Pearson would have won with a summary judgement on the first round.


 4:47 pm on Aug 2, 2010 (gmt 0)

Yeah, I would like to see one of these cases go to court.

The thing is, Brett, every similar case that has been brought that I could find out about was settled, with the party accused of breaking the GPL essentially giving into the FSF interpretation of the GPL.

But it is not at all settled case law, because there hasn't been a judgement.

I'm not sure you're right that Pearson would have won though, since, as I say, some pretty big corporations have backed down on this and as I mentioned above, Sybase and Microsoft seem to accept the FSF interpretation as an operating principle, if not actually accepting it as law.

It would be a very interesting fight in any case, from both a legal and a social perspective. I'd rather see the plaintiff and the defendant have similarly deep pockets though, and in this case I think DIY themes would get creamed on the depth of pockets (I can imagine the WP Foundation easily raising money faster than Obama in 2007).

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