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GPL Showdown

GPL Showdown

If you missed the Matt Mullenweg vs. Chris Pearson debate live debate today, this is my wrap up:

Matt: Thesis is violating the law because it violates GPL (GNU General Public License).
Chris: No it isn’t.

Matt: Businesses can thrive under GPL.
Chris: So?

Matt: Why won’t you bring Thesis over to GPL?
Chris: Because I would feel like I’m doing something against my personal beliefs.

Matt: We might sue you.
Chris: Bring it on.

It was interspersed with various (what I felt to be) personal attacks and chest thumping. No conclusion was come to.

As for me, I don’t know enough to have super strong opinions on all this. I do know that I’d way rather be friendly with the WordPress community and its founding fathers than at odds, so if Matt asked me to do something, I’d generally just do it. Hey, that’s why the domain of this site is and not

50 responses

  1. Do you have any personal comment on this topic, sir?

  2. Personally, I think Thesis sucks bigtime….
    It’s a pain in the ass themimg that sh*t

    • Right there with you. I cringe every time I hear it mentioned.

    • haha. best comment ever.

    • I couldn’t agree more, I don’t get what the big deal about it is. I can see people new to WordPress and online publishing being lured in by the SEO video narrated by Brian Clark. However, from a design and development standpoint the theme is terrible.

      I’ve seen more and more Thesis themes pop up and about 90% of the ones I see never change anything from the default install. Probably because they have no idea how. Most designers who are used to WordPress like myself would probably be lost as well. I feel bad for anyone forced to work with it.

  3. Even if it wasn’t intended, this was a pretty hilarious breakdown. Well done.

  4. I think there’s some legal requirement about enforcement of copyright, and the failure to do so is harmful to future copyright claims. I think that would force Matt to sue unfortunately. I wish him the best of luck, as the GPL is important to my company and the WP community as a whole.

    • You may be thinking of trade marks, which apply to names, and can be weakened or lost if not defended.

  5. Brandon Mathis

    You could also look at it as Matt being at odds with the WordPress Community. That’s how it looks to me.

    • Please explain this comment. How is Matt at odds with the WordPress community when he is merely trying to maintain the license agreement WordPress was written under? It’s not even his license agreement (or his decision to use said license), since B2 (where WordPress came from) was released under the GPL. That means that any fork of that code (i.e. WordPress) would also *have* to be GPL under the terms of the license, or be in violation of copyright law. It’s a software license. It’s not an opinion or an ideology or a personal belief (all of which, it could be argued, apply to Mr. Pearson’s standpoint).

      • It can be argued working against the WP community in that he is arguing to extend the scope of GPL beyond any previous legal president, by expanding the definition of “derived work” to “dependent work”.

        “Derived work” must be released as GPL (according to the license), but work that does not borrow from the original code base, but offers a value add to the original code base has never been legally considered “derived work”.

        So Matt is trying to force a license upon other’s work. This can be interpreted as working against the interests of those developers.

        Personally, I believe Matt’s motives are good. I just think the legal guidance he has received is flawed.

        • The fact is there’s lawyers on both sides that make a valid case. There’s the “fair use” argument you link to (and Chris Pearson uses as justification) and there’s the “themes inherit the GPL” argument Matt posted on last summer. If it ever came to court, it would be an interesting battle.

          I hope it doesn’t come to that, though, because if the “fair use” argument won, that could essentially invalidate the GPL and the decades-worth of code written under that license. I tend to side with the Software Freedom Law Center’s argument because I don’t see the Nintendo/Sega Genesis precedent cited in Mike Wasylik’s post as a direct 1:1 correlation — neither Nintendo nor Genesis use open source licenses and both cases apply to hardware, not software. (That said, I’d guess there’s a pretty good chance most courts would side with the “fair use” argument.)

          Anyway, I don’t think the intent is to force anything. Matt is particularly evangelical about the GPL and he is pretty outspoken on that count, but if there is a legal analysis that says themes are a derivative work (see above), I don’t see it as forcing anything on anyone to say that anything other than that is a violation of the copyright law that protects the software.

          There’s a lot of “spirit and not the letter”-type stuff to this argument, too, which, apparently, Chris Pearson couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.

          I would like to see someone else, maybe the EFF, — which I imagine would be fairly impartial given that they’ve defended both “fair use” and open source — take a look at WP and give their legal analysis about it, though, so at least there’s more than just one argument on each side.

  6. are you saying that Matt asked you to change the URL of this site to I thought it was just easier to remember/type…

    Thanks for the synopsis. I missed the whole thing… and kind of glad I did.

    • Yep, he did ask for it to be changed, and we did.

      We also asked him if we could use the WordPress logo on the site and book and we were allowed, so it kinda works both ways I guess. Although that might be part of the GPL deal.

    • Actually, he asked us just to change it from to anything that didn’t use the term “wordpress”. And I’m glad we did because otherwise we wouldn’t have found :)

      • That’s really interesting. I guess it makes sense, as we don’t really see “wordpress” in any other url’s, either. WPengineer, WPvote, etc. Besides, I like digwp way more anyway… Short and sweet.

        Thanks both for the follow-up. Let’s hope this GPL mess get’s resolved sooner than later (and before Chris completely destroys his reputation/credibility).

      • The domain “” still redirects to this website, so I assume that they still allow you to keep it?

        Also, the title of the website is still “Digging into WordPress”, so it seems strange that they crack down on domain names but don’t care about the actual branding of the site (which is much more prominent than the domain).

        • lol! Yeah, they allowed us to keep it, or at least we didn’t really ask permission about doing so. The redirect was put in place to redirect the traffic coming in from when we were using that domain for the first couple of months. I think the main thing there is that the URL that shows in the browser field won’t mislead anyone into thinking that they’re actually at the main WordPress site. So the redirect is no biggie because nobody really sees it.

          I agree about your second point, but am thankful that the branding concerns stop with the URL. Even so, I have seen quite a few sites that continue to use “wordpress” in their domain name. So who knows if there is any consistency to how that sort of policy is enforced.

    • You can read what WordPress has to say about domains and graphics and all that stuff right here.

      The way I see it, Matt and his crew built something that we have all been able to ride along with and make lots, and I mean, lots of money.

      It’s only fair to listen to what few things he asks us to refrain from doing. Like Jeff said, if Matt asked me to do something, I’d probably do it. Our company has an excellent target customer base thanks to him.

  7. Vassilis Mastorostergios

    @Jacob Matt doesn’t allow the word “wordpress” on any URLs its a trademark.

  8. Nice summary. I would add one line though. I think it was the moderator that brought up suing, though I could be wrong. So add a new line seven:

    Moderator: So Matt would you sue if he does not change?

  9. good wrap-up :)

  10. The best legal analysis I have found: Why the GPL does not apply to premium WordPress themes

    404 Link removed 2020/04/16:

  11. While I feel most of this debate is a little petty, I am concerned about the licensing and in some parts I agree with chris that themes and plugins should be separate from the WordPress GPL license.

    This is not really a WordPress problem, even though WordPress is in question in this example, it is more of a GPL issue. The GPL states that only parts of the theme must be licensed under the gpl license. ie page.php, index.php, functions.php and other required files for a WordPress theme to work. Files such as CSS, images, JavaScript and separate php code which can work standalone can still be licensed under whatever you want which in most cases will cover the theme developer as obviously the theme heavily relies on these files.

    It becomes much more of an issue with plugins which are developed as in most cases the code is very intwined with WordPress.

    In most cases such as custom client themes there is nothing to worry about because the theme is so bespoke to the website it would be unusable anywhere else and in most cases client themes are not readily available to download on the web.

    When releasing a premium theme I feel there is also very little to worry about because while the core WordPress theme files are released under GPL license (therefore someone could technically distribute it themselves for free) the other files (CSS, js, images) are not which make the theme your own. I mean if we compare two themes it is highly likely the the header, index, footer, page files are very similar and nothing special which I couldn’t get from a free theme or even the default one. it’s the other, none WordPress, files which make it special.

    So basically folks let’s all get along, have fun and love what we’re doing. We don’t want a successful platform like WordPress tarnished with a law suit and spoil all the great work which is going on out there.


    • Unfortunately, Chris Pearson wouldn’t “feel right” about releasing the core WordPress theme files under the GPL, hence the issue…

      • Yes I understand that but I don’t think he understands that it is not the entire theme which needs to be released under the GPL so his work is protected.

        Although I do agree with Chris and feel that regardless of whether the theme is using some core WordPress functions you should be able to license it under whatever you wish and it should only be recommended that your theme is licensed under GPL.

        I’d be interested to see where things like software for Linux stand in this debate. Are they required to be released under GPL because they’re using the Linux operating system? That could give a few big companies a shock if so.


        • All you need to do is read the license. It’s pretty clear.

          WordPress is released under the GPLv2 which you can find here (among other places):

          Relevant highlights:

          This License applies to any program or other work which contains a notice placed by the copyright holder saying it may be distributed under the terms of this General Public License. The “Program”, below, refers to any such program or work, and a “work based on the Program” means either the Program or any derivative work under copyright law: that is to say, a work containing the Program or a portion of it, either verbatim or with modifications and/or translated into another language.

          This means if you are working with any software released under the GPL or building any derivative of GPL software, it must inherit the license or be in violation of copyright law. (The question in this case is whether a theme is a “derivative work”. Chris Pearson says no. Matt says yes. Chris Pearson cites a lawyer’s analysis, Matt cites a different lawyer’s (or a group of lawyers) analysis.)

          Later, the license states:

          You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the Program except as expressly provided under this License. Any attempt otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License. However, parties who have received copies, or rights, from you under this License will not have their licenses terminated so long as such parties remain in full compliance.

          This means that releasing your work under any other license than the GPL if it is a copy or a derivative work of GPL software is prohibited. Furthermore, even if you release your theme under a non-GPL license people who download your non-GPL-licensed work are still protected by the GPL. It expands on this in the next section with:

          You are not required to accept this License, since you have not signed it. However, nothing else grants you permission to modify or distribute the Program or its derivative works. These actions are prohibited by law if you do not accept this License. Therefore, by modifying or distributing the Program (or any work based on the Program), you indicate your acceptance of this License to do so, and all its terms and conditions for copying, distributing or modifying the Program or works based on it.

          So, when Matt says Chris is breaking the law, this is what he’s referring to. Sure, you’re not required to accept the license, but if you release your derivative work to the public under a different license, you are breaking the law. Again, the main question is whether a theme can be defined as a derivative work.

          Any software derivative of other software released under the GPL is required by law to also be released under the GPL. Linux has been built on this for years and years. In no place does the GPL say that your work must be free, in fact, it states explicitly “You may charge a fee for the physical act of transferring a copy, and you may at your option offer warranty protection in exchange for a fee.” What it does say, however, is that people who download your work are free to modify it, re-release it, under whatever terms they want (provided they are still under the GPL). What pisses Chris Pearson off is the idea of someone buying his theme and then re-releasing it, for free, under the GPL. However, as Matt said in the interview, this is what ever other major premium theme developer is doing (WooThemes, StudioPress, Organic Themes, etc, etc, etc).

  12. What the different between and

    • they’ve requested that no domain have the word “wordpress” in it so to respect trademark, etc.

  13. excellent short-version.

  14. found this audio on the debate.

  15. Excellent summary indeed, you covered the hard facts and left out mud slinging. If only actual situation was that down to facts and not throwing opinions and accusations around. :(

  16. My personal opinion on this matter: ;)

    • Just wanted to point out that there’s nothing stopping anyone from releasing WordPress themes (or WordPress itself, for that matter) under any of those licenses listed on that page since they’re all GPL-compatible. :)

    • Lucid, reasonable and impartial. And the use of the emoticon shows a person of enormous class and standing.

      It’s the cancer that’s the parasite or his the human that’s the parasite of the cancer?

  17. I think the WordPress Team should just build a bigger and better core system to allow such features as Thesis… This way there will be no controversy. Wait come to think of it they did, WP 3.0. Enough said.

  18. The more I think about this, the more it seems like it could dramatically alter the course of WordPress. For better or worse.

    And why single out Thesis? Aren’t there other ill-licensed themes (and plugins) available? Will they also face the “go GPL or get sued” drama?

    I don’t have any strong opinions either way, but have a feeling we’ll all be hearing much more about this in months (and years) ahead.

    • If it goes to court and it is determined that Thesis is required to be under GPL, then one effect might be that premium theme makers start having a bit of shaky knees in that they now know they are building for a platform who’s overlords have sued people just like themselves when they do something the overlords don’t like. Even though the community right now, myself included, is very much behind WordPress right now, starting to sue people may become a slippery slope.

      If it goes to court and it is determined Thesis is fine the way it is, there is probably a ton of currently GPL software out there that is going to rip off that license and copyright it their own way. Whether the circumstance is the exact same or not doesn’t matter since there will be momentum behind the GPL losing a court case.

      It’s all extremely interesting, but I feel like the overall impact for WordPress and it’s future will be pretty minimal.

  19. Hope that this debate will not have any bad effect on our beloved WordPress.

  20. In the first place I feel like going with Chris, since thesis seems not to be a derivative work of WP but entirely a different entity. But the process of suing might just hamper the spirit of developers.

    It seems that people are misleaded on the scope of GPL. May good sense prevail with their lawyers and we get a fruitful result. And mind you sweet fruit not a sour one.

    I am a bit astonished on the fact that Matt asked you to change your domain. Never mind – LONG LIVE WORDPRESS!

    • several WP core devs have proven that Thesis does in fact copy portions of code right out of the core, and also by personal experience theming it, I can say that it is necessary to use WP fucntions for creating custom pages for example, so it does depend on WP.
      Anyway, it will be interesting to see the outcome of this debate, and I think it’s time that this is settled

      • by personal experience theming it, I can say that it is necessary to use WP fucntions for creating custom pages for example, so it does depend on WP.

        It’s not specifically necessary. If you were a real stubborn pain in the ass, you could get around using WordPress hooks and develop your own that did the same thing (which, I think, largely, is what Thesis did). It sort of defeats the purpose of using WordPress as a platform to build themes on, though, and makes one wonder why you would bother. (Which, in fact, has been asked of Chris Pearson and he maintains that it’s because WordPress is just so awesome — despite lashing against its lack of usability and sloppy code. The real reason, I suspect, is because he can farm WordPress’ millions of downloads and wide acceptance. Any other blogging or CMS platform (including those that didn’t require a GPL license) would most likely have a smaller user base.)

        • It could also be said that using the custom filters/functions provided by WordPress (i.e. in the Codex) also doesn’t constitute a “derivative work.” It’s like using an API to plug into a software program, but it doesn’t necessarily alter the function of or branch out the software and it wouldn’t be new software derived from the old software.

          If that were the case, then many many PHP programs out there which use a generic function from or use the include()/require() functions to call a GPL’ed file would therefore fall under some variation of the GPL, which is just plain silly.

          What it comes down to is the ambiguous line between derivative and dependent; they are not the same thing.

          And I know many people are bellyaching about going to court, but I want it to go there. I want a legal precendent to be set. But, in this specific case, unless it can be proven that Pearson is using code copy/pasted directly from the WordPress software outside of Fair Use, there’s a good chance WP could lose this one.

          It’s better, and easier, in this case simply to ostracize Pearson/Thesis and form a rally of people (i.e. the diehard WP community) to stone him because one of a few things will happen: his business will ultimately be damaged and he’ll be forced to release under GPL, close up shop, or just live with the losses. I think Matt knows this.

        • @KB: I’d be willing to bet that if you’re using specific WordPress hooks (i.e. bloginfo, the_content, etc) that it would fall under a derivative work because those hooks are specific to WordPress (and not generic php functions), but that’s neither here nor there…

          The main point I wanted to make with regards to your comment is that, as has been pointed out elsewhere, several WP developers have determined that code was deliberately copy/pasted from WordPress core into Thesis, see Andrew Nacin’s post here.

          Additionally, Mike Wasylik, the lawyer who first proposed that fair use might apply, has said that in light of that fact, fair use probably wouldn’t apply.

          The code, as I understand it, was added around version 1.5, so all subsequent versions up to and including 1.8-beta would technically fall under the GPL because they include GPL code. The question then becomes, if Chris rips that code out, is that safe to use a non-GPL license? Or does 1.8 (minus the WP “copy pasta”) become a derivative of the previous, GPL versions unless he completely rewrites everything?

          The whole issue is clearly outside the range of what casual observers could really gauge at this point, especially considering legal experts can’t even agree on the subject.

  21. I don’t have much experience with Thesis or what it does, but I’m about to go find out more just from this post and the comments.

    Can anybody briefly sum up what type of threat WordPress views Thesis as?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Kris,

      It’s not necessarily viewed as a threat, but it’s diluting the spirit of the GPL, the license under which WP is released which states that any derivative software must also be released under GPL or compatible license.

      Since I have not seen the code of Thesis, I cannot comment on whether or not it is violating the GPL license, but many people seem to think it does, including Matt Mullenweg. Right now, Chris allegedly has a stringent license which prohibits most of that. (I say allegedly because I have not read his license.)

      The goal is to have Chris Pearson release Thesis re-licensed to be compatible with the GPL which will basically give the people who purchase the theme the right to modify it and release it however they see fit (i.e. they can rewrite his code and release it for free or sell it, whatever floats their boats, so long as they release it under GPL, too).

      Or, he can find a way to dual license it, which may be more trouble than it’s worth, so that the part which uses WP code is GPL and his custom bits are licensed however he wishes…but I think Matt would just be happy if the whole shebang were released as GPL.

      • Thanks KB,

        I think the part about not re-releasing the code built on top of WP is the part that I was missing here. It’s one thing to buy a solution, have the source code (assuming it’s provided) and be a developer who can modify and improve it. If those improvements or fixes (via the support community) make it back into the product and profits of somebody else, I can see how that would cause some unrest.

        Thanks for the info.

  22. Looks like Chris Pearson changed his mind rather quickly.

    I wonder who will be next on the “go GPL or we’ll sue” hitlist..

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