WordPress, GPL, Thesis and Speeding Tickets

Some very, very interesting happenings in the WordPress community over the past two days.  I’m late to the game, as great post with fantastic comments have already covered most of the topics.

New Zealand South Island

Lets back this up and talk about licences.  WordPress, the blogging software that runs this blog, is open source under GPL.  GPL is a licence that is ‘copyleft’ in that it gives you rights as an author and user.

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program–to make sure it remains free software for all its users. We, the Free Software Foundation, use the GNU General Public License for most of our software; it applies also to any other work released this way by its authors. You can apply it to your programs, too.

You can read more about the WordPress licensing here.

So let’s imagine that you are about to travel the world, and every country you can visit has different rules.  You can go to anyone, and when you by choice enter, you should abide by the rules (like speed limits).  If you go to South Africa, the speed limit is 100kmh and if I go 150kmh I will most likely get pulled over and told ‘hey, your breaking the rules.’  You can respond to this by saying ‘I had no idea, so sorry, will go 100kmh now’ or ‘screw off, my car goes this fast and I feel like it.’

From what I can tell that is what is happening with the WordPress v. Thesis debate.  Wordpress is a country, has its own rules, has citizens making money while living there, has a population, and says that you can build on top of it freely and openly as long as you adhere to some rules.  Thesis is a citizen that doesn’t want to follow the speed limit or respect the country or the others that have built it.  It is being pulled over by a cop right now and told ‘hey, you are breaking the rules’ and responding ‘screw you, DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?’

A fantastic analysis of the code base was done by Drew Blas and shows pretty clearly code that GPL code was used in the theme.

There is a painful lack of humility, which might be the biggest error of all, from the theme author.  The WordPress community is massive, and when someone is framed as clearly disrespecting the collective work, the response is swift.  In the past 24 hours WordPress’s founder Matt Mullenweg has commented by blogging, doing a live interview (a must watch), tweeted a ton,  and even reached out of flickr photos. I would be surprised if we don’t see a lawsuit.

I need to donate more time to WordPress, a project that I love and want to see continue to thrive.  A very interesting discussion that boiled over in the past week, and will continue to be interesting to watch.

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  • timhadley

    Interesting. Thanks for collecting all this information and summarizing it. I wish I'd been aware of the issue a few weeks ago – I wouldn't have bought Thesis.

    I especially want to review that codebase analysis. Evaluating whether a piece of software infringes another often requires a complex, multilayered analysis. But if GPL code is actually directly incorporated into Thesis — not merely the abstract ideas expressed in the code, which aren't protected by copyright, but the way they are expressed — that would pretty clearly infringe.

  • http://twitter.com/drewblas drewblas

    Hi Andrew:

    Outside of Thesis I took a more in-depth look at what everyone thought was the Thesis issue: Does the GPL apply to themes and plugins? I don't really agree with the FSLC here, but I'd like to keep discussing it: http://bit.ly/cygoRV

  • cDot

    Here's another (inaccurate) analogy: WordPress is a giant blog that absorbs everything it touches.

    The reality is likely somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, WordPress should be able to set the rules on how add-ons integrate with it and control the content on their website. On the other, I believe it's unethical to dictate how third parties (completely unattached to WordPress) must distribute and license their work.

  • http://virtualcrowds.org Terence

    OK, I have poked through the tweets, read the posts, listened to the debate bubbling away in the background, and now I have heard both Chris and Matt put their respective sides of the argument. So I now hold, what I would consider to be, at least a semi-informed view on the issue.

    I can see both sides of the disagreement, but I have to say, I think Matt's line of reasoning is the better informed, the most public spirited and the one which has already and would continue to benefit the online community the most.

    Chris way over-estimates the importance of Thesis to the WordPress community, and his position in that community. Somewhat speciously, he uses this inflated estimate of its worth to argue he should not be subject to a license that was in place long before he built Thesis and upon which he was entitled, in fact as a businessman, obliged, to read and understand before so doing .

    I am also astonished at how rude, boorish and over-bearing Chris was in trying to dominate the debate, and had I known his views and understood the issues a little sooner, I would never have bought Thesis.

    I wish I could keep my temper in check, as Matt did, but I know myself better than that. So I tried to think what I could do to help, instead of just getting mad, and this is what I decided.

    Because of the overriding benefit to the online community, even though he will surely prevail; I don't think Matt should have to put up his own money to fight a law case to prove the validity of the GPL which is, in effect, on our behalf.

    Therefore, I think the GPL should be tested another way. If you have bought a version of Thesis from DIY Themes (Chris Pearson’s company), or from any other website, you can click this link now and join the “Thesis Class Action Suit” list at http://virtualcrowds.org/2010/07/thesis-class-a…, and let’s see just how many people agree with Chris, and how many with Matt and the GPL.

  • http://www.laptopbatteriesinc.com.au laptop battery

    I wish I'd been aware of the issue a few weeks ago – I wouldn't have bought Thesis.

  • http://mxdtr.com/ drivers

    I like your article very much. Great work, keep it up!

  • http://mxdtr.com/ mike

    Hi Andrew,
    The GPL, and other strong copyleft licenses, place some restrictions on redistribution of GPL-ed software. Weak copyleft licenses like the 2 clause BSD license places much fewer restrictions. For example, a closed source software cannot use GPL-ed components unless the final software is relicensed as GPL.

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