Wordpress vs. Thesis : concrete5 says “the GPL is stupid”

Wow. If you haven’t heard the drama, you should watch this video. In short, a premium theme developer (DYITthemes) which sells a wordpress theme named Thesis does not release it under the GPL license.

Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder and leader of Wordpress is calling him out on it; “when you violate someone’s license it is breaking the law. It’s a definition of breaking the law.”

Chris Pearson says he doesn’t have to release his theme under the GPL “They are not the highest authority node up on the tree that gets to decide everything that happens underneath them.”

You can watch them get all sassy with each other for an hour, if you want. Plenty of people have and some of them are asking for our view on it.

concrete5 is a competitor to Wordpress in ways, and we had to choose a license when we started as well. We specifically did NOT choose the GPL for exactly this reason. Here’s how we see it…

1) Much of this is about distribution. Our understanding of this is pretty simple:

If Thesis is distributed as a stand alone download that /includes/ a copy of Wordpress, then Chris is legally wrong. If you distribute GPL software, everything you add to it has to be GPL compatible. Clear and simple, period.

If Thesis is distributed on its own, I think Chris might have an argument to make. It’s easy to think “hey this does nothing without Wordpress, it is dependent on it, it needs to honor whatever legal requirements Wordpress comes up with” but I don’t think that’s technically true. The GPL is about the copying and distribution of software and it doesn’t really cover this with a tremendous amount of clarity. There’s plenty of examples that would have been a lot more interesting to discuss than what they did in the interview. For example, just because you’ve written software that runs on Linux doesn’t mean it has to be GPL. If you distribute Linux WITH your software as a single solution it does however. How’s that for weird?

Regardless, Chris would have a much better high ground to stand on if Thesis actually worked with different CMS backends – much the way that C# application you wrote for linux could also run on a variety of other operating systems.

2) Matt seems like an awful nice guy, and Pearson comes off like a total douche in this interview. I’ve never met either, I’m sure they’re both awesome, I’m just saying after losing an hour to listening to this crap there’s a pretty clear answer for who I’d like to have a beer with. That’s a tremendous shame because frankly Chris is the underdog here trying to build and maintain a nice small business and Wordpress is the big player trying to squash entrepreneurialism. Regardless, Matt comes off as the hero cause he’s a nice guy and Chris comes off poorly because of the way he makes his arguments. Important lessons there, it’s probably time for us to do a better job stripping drupal references from our customer testimonials. ;)

3) Wow you can tell the difference that some funding makes. Let me just be clear about what I believe to be the real motivators here, please correct me if I’m mis-informed: Wordpress  Automattic has raised over $40m in venture capital. They have over 25 million blogs out there, and fundamentally they are in the content business. They don’t make their real money by selling wordpress, or taking a cut of marketplace add-ons, or offering paid hosting, or any of the stuff we do, they make their money on content. The advertising value on wordpress.com is huge. You have 25 million individuals using your platform to create content, you can monetize that in big ways. That’s why wordpress may be frequently used as a CMS to build some corporate site, but you’ll never see their core team drop features that help my wife (who has an active wordpress blog about DIY sewing), in favor of features that make some corporate extranet easier to run. Matt doesn’t have to worry about making payroll in two weeks, he has to worry about balancing ads and content on Wordpress.com so my wife keeps going there to find other cool sewing blogs she wants to cross link to. Wordpress’s real competitors are Twitter, Facebook, Google – they’re in that big business of re-inventing media. That’s why the GPL makes sense to them. The more wordpress is out there, the better for wordpress, as long as it’s called Wordpress.

Chris on the other hand is selling a Theme that helps turn Wordpress into a application that does something more. Again I’m just guessing here, but it wouldn’t shock me at all to hear Chris’s company is self funded, profitable, and it hasn’t been easy to get there. The idea of having a product that you sell at $50 a pop being distributed for free or even worse sold for $49 somewhere else has to make him physically sick. The carrot of “but people will want you for support” is a pretty grim answer.

I’m not arguing that Matt has an easy life and Chris doesn’t. Certainly the stress of looking Phil Black in the eye and saying “yes your $40m will turn into $800 million, sir” can’t be fun. I’m just saying the two challenges are very different and you can read the distinction in motivation from just the tone of their voices alone.

4) The GPL is stupid, and O’Reilly did us all a tremendous disservice when he came up with “open source”. Yeah I said it, so blah! When I was a developer growing up in the 80’s, we had licenses that actually meant what they said. If you wanted to just give something away, you called it Freeware. If you wanted to save some money on sales but still own your software, you called it Shareware or Crippleware depending on if you offered a fully functional copy with additional features or if you did something like disable save. These labels came from the DIY software world where entrepreneurs could start successful businesses cheap by distributing stuff on BBS’s. (go look up Apogee Games). Meanwhile there were any number of “big” projects that were being distributed under licenses that made sense for schools and huge corporate problems. NASA develops some standard and wants to share it with the world, how do they do that? Several big software vendors see value in a piece of software existing, but not being “owned” by any commercial entity, how do they do that? Everyone wrote their own license and while it was confusing, it worked. Then in the late 90’s the successful technical book publisher O’Reilly came along and dubbed everything I’ve listed as “Open Source” for the benefit of the media which was having a hard time understanding how Linux could compete with Windows. Well that’s cool and all, certainly having concepts that everyone can understand in a word is great, but clearly we aren’t really there. Confusion abounds. People talk about “free beer vs. free speech” all the time, it sounds like a broken record. Any one with half a brain knows that nothing worth having in life is truly free (in cost), yet we also agree that the idea buying a car with the hood welded shut sounds like getting screwed. The goal to provide some clarity across all the different types of licenses that software was released under by calling half “open source” and the other half “commercial” has utterly failed.

5) You say you want freedom? Then the GPL isn’t for you. It is not “freedom” to force people who extend your software to honor ANYTHING you say. I’m not saying it isn’t a good business idea, I imagine it may frequently be a great business idea, but it’s not “freedom” so don’t try to take the moral high ground. You’re limiting people and it doesn’t matter that the perceived motivation of your limit is to enforce further freedom. Freedom doesn’t work that way, but proponents of the GPL seem to think it needs protection. Here’s how we see it:

If you’re for the GPL, you believe freedom is a fragile flower that has to be protected. “This started as free, we’re going to make sure it says free with all our impressive powers.”

If you’re against the GPL, you believe freedom is a force of nature. It may not look that powerful at a glance, but it’s gonna win in the end. It’s like entropy. It exists, it will win. It doesn’t need your help, all it needs is your awareness and faith, and sooner or later it’ll come out on top.

Freedom is the MIT license which to paraphrase in three words says : “Don’t sue us”. If your goal really is to give something away for no cost and have the world be “free” to do whatever it wants with it, that’s all you need. Limit the creators exposure to liability, which would limit their own freedom, and you’ve made it “free.” Of course if you do that you run the risk of someone taking your software packing it up and screwing you over in any number of ways, but no one said freedom was easy.

These issues with the GPL are not new, and it’s sad to see this play out yet again. Frankly I like to think that any legal document’s job is to create clarity, and whatever your view may be, its clear the GPL is pretty gray in spots. In some ways, I hope this does go to court so we can all get a clear answer on how this thing is supposed to work.

Meanwhile if you want to be part of something that is free, and is eager to be free in a simple understandable way, you should be developing stuff for concrete5.

UPDATE : Orrrrr I’m completely wrong.

As more debate continues in IRC and other forums a point has come up that we didn’t address in the original post. Thesis uses wordpress’s theme engine and that includes any number of lines of code that wordpress wrote. Clearly that is their work, covered by their license, and Thesis is a derivative of it. THAT being the case, he very well may be violating the GPL. What gets interesting there is where is the line for that not being derivative? If he just goes through and renames all the functions and variables but it functions the same way, is that new work? What if he changes some logic too, for loops become while loops, etc. Where is the line where something is no longer derivative but a new thing?

What if Thesis makes an abstraction layer from scratch that does nothing but give them some differently named hooks to the same stuff, and then releases THAT abstraction layer LGPL and continues to sell their theme? That sounds legal, annoyingly stupid but legal.

Regardless the fact that everyone’s so confused about this does bring serious questions to the fore on the worth of GPL and what ‘freedom’ means. I hope we find out.