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WordPress, Thesis, and GPL Heartache

Several battles have been brewing from within the WordPress community.

It's WordPress, not Wordpress dangit!

A couple weeks ago, a snippet of code got sneaked into WordPress 3.0. The function, capital_P_dangit, is a filter that replaces "Wordpress" with "WordPress" throughout one's site.

While this doesn't seem like a big deal, this change infuriated some users. They claimed that WordPress does not own a user's content, and therefore, such a move (without first explicitly asking to do so) infringes on the user's expressive freedoms.

The filter itself doesn't bother me personally. What bothers me is the lack of review. This change produced a rarely-occuring permalink bug in WordPress 3.0. This "feature" was added with barely any discussion, and hopefully isn't an indication of things to come.

Themes and Plugins Must be GPL

WordPress is licensed under the GPL (v2). It's been clearly stated that all WordPress plugins and themes should be licensed under the GPL as well.

As written on Perpetual Beta, "Anyone who gets a copy of a premium theme then has the right to freely distribute it or modify it virtually without restriction (expect, of course, those restrictions found in the GPL itself)".

The popular paid theme, Thesis, does not adhere to the GPL license. The authors refuse to.

The GPL (version 2)

The GPL ensures that software is freely redistributable, but not necessarily without a price. You've probably heard the phrase "free as in free speech, not as in free beer." GPL software is meant to protect its users (and the community), not the authors. Users have four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Thesis is Special, Right?

The authors, particularly Chris Pearson, fear that switching to GPL will de-value their product. It'll allow for knock-off themes that are strikingly similar to Thesis — but for a fraction of the cost.

Under the GPL license, free distribution is encouraged -- as long as the product (or derivative) remains under the GPL.

The other argument is that although Thesis requires WordPress to function, the vast majority of the theme's code is totally original. In that respect, some argue that it may not fall into the "derivative work" category, which mandates the GPL stamp.

Chris claimed during a live call that WordPress cannot lawfully force Thesis to adopt the GPL. He coined the GPL as a "flimsy and unenforceable license".

No, says WordPress

The creator of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, argued that licensing Thesis under the GPL was "the right thing to do." He argued that commercial GPL themes (and plugins) can still be profited from, and there are other effective models at earning a steady income (such as through offering services and/or paid support).

Most notably, those supporting Matt's stance argue, "If you don't agree with the GPL, then don't develop for WordPress."

Although both sides have decent points, I was a little disappointed by all the smearing via Twitter. At one point, Matt essentially told followers not to use Thesis, and (in response to a Thesis vulnurability claim), "This is what happens when non-coders think they can code." This isn't saying that Chris wasn't without flaws, as his arrogance shined during the live call: "I am one of the three most important people in WordPress."


This is an ongoing battle, with both sides clinging to their interpretations of the GPL license. I don't see either side giving up very easily, so this dispute could likely find its way into court. I'm excited to see how this unfolds, as a decision will affect not just WordPress, but many other open platforms (Drupal, Joomla, etc.) as well.

What are your thoughts?