Thesis vs WordPress GPL

Thesis Pissing In the WordPress Well?

I am going to prepend this by saying up front that I typically disagree with Matt Mullenweg on many decisions

  • The WordPress Trademark issue still isn’t clear almost 4 years on, it isn’t policed, the logo for WordPress doesn’t contain the expected ® symbol, there should probably be a statement on all sites that use it, even the ones owned by Automattic, and it should be 100% clear that it is owned by the WordPress Foundation.
  • To be 100% transparent I have to mention has been dead since beta, banned for breaking a terms of service that didn’t exist for months after I was banned (and all I was doing was debugging a xml-rpc bug)
  • I have ranted a little about various SEO issues with
  • I have also pointed out various interesting commercial decisions including partnership choices (keep it in the family)
    Akismet… I have had a few disagreeable words about that as well

To balance that I am not a massive fan of WordPress SEO Themes that claim they do things better than existing plugins. In some ways Thesis in particular was worse than Kubrick for 18 months (up until 1.7 when they supposedly fixed meta nofollow noindex).

As well as lots of back and forth comments on Twitter between Chris Pearson & Matt Mullenweg that were entertaining onlookers on Twitter last night, we also have this interview by Mixergy.

There is also this short version on DigWP for those that don’t have much time, but it doesn’t reference the legality of blow jobs.
(note: they were asked like many others in the WP community not to use WordPress in their domain)

My own short version is that Chris thinks he should be allowed to license his software any way he pleases.

But he is overlooking something

WordPress was a fork of B2 and has existed on its own for 7 years.

I doubt there is any code from B2 left, but if there is, it would be easily replaced.

Chris’ whole arguement hinges around his interpretation of the GPL license rather than the interpretation that seems to be prevalent & understood by the vast majority of the WordPress core developers.

Chris can only argue with the letter of the law.. the written license.

Morally that stamps all over the frequently stated intent and expressed interpretation of the GPL v2 license used by WordPress & the core developers.

I am saying prevalent… not universal… there have always been a few people who are smart coders who have worked out legal ways around the GPL, but this is mainly using duel licenses & proprietary classes, or filtering the full output thus not using any WordPress specific functionality.

Chris’ arguments seem to stem around the core WordPress code base, which is already being picked apart.
It will get even more interesting if you compare to the whole code base of the plugin repository. There is very little if any functionality in Thesis that wasn’t present in some capacity before Thesis existed, maybe other than the big save button.

No Need To Use The Legal Stick

There has been suggestions that Matt Mullenweg might take legal action… I don’t think that is needed.

This is what I would do (I am an evil bastard)

  • I would create a list of every Thesis function name, and search the whole of the plugin database. Any mention of any of those function names, even just a check to see if it exists, delete/ban the plugin. Plugins in the repository shouldn’t make use of proprietary 3rd party functions, or data structures.
    This would of course affect things like Scribe SEO and lots of plugins dedicated for use with Thesis.
    Only 32 plugins of 10K+ even mention Thesis in their description, so it isn’t a huge loss. You might catch a few people promoting Thesis affiliate links as well.
  • Thesis is meant to provide support, not the WordPress forums, so all discussions regarding Thesis should be banned on the WordPress support forums. If for some reason there is an issue of Thesis with another plugin, that is obviously a problem with Thesis… as Thesis doesn’t interact with WordPress code.
  • I think anyone using Thesis is using WordPress commercially, or would be very clearly a non-profit. It would be very easy to check all websites that use Akismet, and if any of them are using Thesis but haven’t purchased a license sufficient with their use to use Akismet, Akismet should be switched off.
    (note: I am also not a fan of Akismet or any kind of collective intelligence for comment spam, but all is fair in love & war)
  • Vaultpress – you wouldn’t want the risk of breaking any Thesis copyright, so obviously Vaultpress shouldn’t be useable with any site using Thesis.
  • Pingomatic – isn’t Thesis a keyword associated with spam and copyright violation?
  • Extend Code Poet crackdown – if you are serious on your CodePoet crackdown, I would do the same with the plugin & theme directory. It would be very easy to take a list of every plugin or theme author, and then perform a site search of every domain of Thesis promotion.

I am looked on as a SEO – SEOs are frequently looked on as “pissing in the well” though most don’t – I am not a fan of comment spam etc.
I am a marketer… I am not a fan of email spam though I know there are legal loopholes that are exploited by spammers.

If the DiyThemes people can’t come up with a way to dual license so that any code that interacts with WordPress is GPL, they are pissing in the “WordPress well” – doing something that it seems the majority of core developers don’t agree with.

In my arguments above the literal interpretation of the GPL doesn’t really matter – what matters is how the core WordPress developers wish for it to be interpreted.

That doesn’t mean I like that interpretation, it doesn’t mean I can stop using plugins/themes that might not comply… as in some situations I don’t have much of a choice, but where I have a choice I know the right decision to make.

P.S. I don’t think this has anything to do with the Thesis distribution servers being hacked.

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  1. says

    Chris Pearson sells a developer edition for guess what? Web developers. Then after you build the websites he contacts you and says you owe him more money if you build sites for clients.

    Chris is an arrogant, abusive and very poor business man in my opinion. I quit using his crappy theme a year and a half ago.

    I have a long string of emails from him that were threatening and insulting even though I explained several times that NONE of the sites that I had previously created were for “clients” but they were all self owned. Did not matter to him he was still abusive.

    Chris Pearson is a legend in his own mind. 27,ooo users out of many millions. Hahahaha!

    If Matt and automattic don’t have enough money to sue him (and win of course) we will pass the hat to help defray the legal expense.

    And that’s all I have to say about that.
    Rich Hill

    • says

      I haven’t purchased Thesis but know that the license (last I heard) couldn’t be used on a public access WPMU site, and the developer version is only for your own use.

      I have no problem with that, other than it might be difficult charging more for multi-use of your own sites if it is GPL. For client sites it is great as then they even have support possibly at a later date if they switch developer, though I am not sure of the specific terms.

      GPL isn’t meant to be a restriction on making money, doesn’t cover CSS, Javascript and images used in WP themes, there is trademark protection for someone distributing the product unmodified, so most of the normal legal concerns are moot.

      But that is geting back into the legal/money arguments, when the most powerful are that

      The only reason WordPress is GPL is because of the way it sticks like glue to the code, even after 7 years – Chris Peason can’t win by invalidating that effect, because if he does, WP are probably no longer bound to B2… so they can license the code however they like…
      It certainly wouldn’t be hard for WordPress/Automattic to make any Thesis users feel like a social outcast with no access to essential (or supposedly essential) services.

      The legal stick in many ways would hurt less than other sanctions.

      • says

        “The only reason WordPress is GPL is because of the way it sticks like glue to the code, even after 7 years”.

        Yep. That’s the derivative effect. WP 3.0 was derived from 2.9, which was derived from 2.8, … which was derived from WP 1.0 which was derived from b2. The only way to eliminate the GPL is to write the functionality new from scratch.

        • says

          I am sure the GPL lawyers would find a way to reword things if the GPL ever failed the “intent” in a court trial.

          WordPress is “owned” (as far as I can tell) hese days by the WordPress foundataion which whilst it might have a few nest eggs and income from, isn’t as many might assume the owner of (Automattic), however I doubt there would be a problem raising money for a defense of the GPL.

  2. says

    It seems to me (not a lawyer) that the whole issue hinges on the definition of a “derivative work” and whether Thesis fits that definition. The power of the GPL is based on copyright. If Thesis isn’t a derivative work of WordPress, then Chris is free to license it as he pleases.

    My personal opinion is that it’s POSSIBLE to create a theme or plugin that interfaces with WordPress through its API without being a derivative work. If somebody takes a GPL licensed theme and modifies it to create a new theme, that’s a derivative work. If someone creates their own theme code, even if they’ve studies other themes to help them understand how the API works, then as long as they’re not copying code, it’s not a derivative work.

    I have no opinion on whether Thesis in particular is or isn’t a derivative work — I’ve never looked at its code or tried to compare it to anything released by WordPress. But I’m pretty sure that just using a public API to interact with a piece of software doesn’t make it a derivative work.

    • says

      I am sure it is possible but it doesn’t clear away the morality & intent part of the argument.

      Most of the WP developers believe the code is protected in this way, as do Joomla & Drupal.

      Using some kind of commercial class library doesn’t destroy the intent, it would just be the commercial equivalent of the LGPL – it can work both ways… that would also be the same in many ways as accessing a local application via API.

      Building a special API for WordPress that a theme could talk to to get delivered content wouldn’t be a major issue either.

      Technicalities like discussing whether it is static linking vs dynamic are a little over my programming knowledge to argue, Chris can’t claim some moral higher ground to license his code how he sees fit if in doing so he is stamping all over the intent of someone else.

  3. says

    I use the Thesis theme, and I want to use it on BuddyPress sites I will hopefully build using the new WP3.0 multiple domains. How does this licensing craziness impact my ideas?

    • says

      You should use something like Buddymatic from Ron & Andrea or their Studiopress for Buddypress.

      Last I read Buddymatic was going to be brought into the main Thematic code

  4. says

    Maybe I am reading Chris Pearson wrong, but I disagree with his argument and they he presented it in this interview…

    I have been promoting Thesis as an affiliate…. needless to say I am leaving their affiliate program for now. :(

    Come on guys kiss up and do the right thing! :)

    • says

      That is an interesting point you make Vlad… so many Thesis affiliates are first and foremost WordPress people.

      Whilst it wasn’t my intention to attack the affiliate base, and a large percentage of Thesis affiliates are more “marketers”, pissing in the WordPress pond is hardly “Third Tribe” – it is a pretty major breakdown in the overall message.

      • says


        I don’t think those who know you will think you are attacking affiliates. But as you said, many of those who use and now promote Thesis, are the WordPress users. Most of those users have been using WordPress for much longer than Thesis is old.

        I personally have not used it, but I have recommended it to clients and friends. I would have not done it if I was aware of this “war”…

        Fortunately over the years I have come to know WordPress and can make it to do (with the help of certain plugins and themes) everything Thesis does and then some.

        I am glad you brought up the issue on your blog, otherwise I would have missed it completely.

  5. says

    The part about “WordPress people” is something that is very important, and that, I don’t think Chris “gets”. He probably can piss in the well and still earn a living from marketers who use WordPress, but he is alienating a much larger and more rabid potential pool of income in the WordPress People he simply doesn’t understand.

    I’ve never owned Thesis, but I have worked with it for several clients who have owned it, and honestly, it really isn’t all that. Sure it has a dashboard, but the dash board doesn’t free a designer, it shackles them. It’s really not much use to someone who plans to have a designer create a site for them, but it’s probably fairly useful if you are slapping up a lot of cookie cutter blogs and write a quick install and configure script for it.

    In all I actually prefer, if I’m forced to work with one of these things, to work with Thematic over Thesis.

  6. Mike says

    I think I can understand where Chris is coming from although I think some of his arguments were flawed. I respect anyone for standing up for what they believe in but you have to ask yourself at what cost. His business model is built upon WordPress therefore it makes sense to me to make that bond as strong as possible rather than fight it. I think Matt is right if he doesn’t agree with the license he should use a platform that doesn’t support GPL.

    At the end of the day though until it is settled in court it could probably be interpreted either way. Although as Matt said I don’t think Chris should be inviting himself to be the first case. I have a feeling it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for him.

    I also don’t think Chris did himself any favors with some of his statements, he certainly thinks highly of himself. I’m not sure how he can claim he is one of the top 3 most influential WordPress people. Also the BJ comment was bizzare to say the least. To me there were really no need for those comments as they had no relevancy to the main issue.

  7. says

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  8. KB says

    Chris can’t claim some moral higher ground to license his code how he sees fit if in doing so he is stamping all over the intent of someone else.

    While he can’t claim the moral higher ground, if his code is not actually derived from WP directly, he might just be able to stamp all over the intent of someone else, legally speaking.

    Although I’ve left a number of comments about this issue, I’m not actually choosing a side because, frankly, it’s a matter for the courts to decide.

    The GPL itself is ambiguous when it comes to derivative works and the FAQ won’t matter in a court of law, only what is written in the license itself. Plus, some people try to stretch the meaning of the GPL so ridiculously that a good analogy would be electricity forcing a lamp to share itself with the whole world because it provides a wall outlet that the lamp plugs into, nevermind that the lamp isn’t actually made out of electricity.

    When it comes down to Thesis and WordPress, it comes down to whether Chris copy/pasted code directly from WordPress that was GPL to begin with. I haven’t seen Thesis or its code, so I cannot speak on that and no one else, unless they’ve had a chance to study the Thesis code and also has a legal eye (as in, is a lawyer/judge), should try to speak on that either.

    That said, you’ve made some excellent suggestions for WP action. In this case it may be better for WP to ostracize Chris rather than take him to court because court can backfire. Still, I do hope Matt sues, as I mentioned on his blog. I’d like to see the direction this all sways and I hope that this horse can finally stay dead.

  9. KB says

    P.S. Your comment submission is wonky. After sending in my comment, I just receive a blank page. When I click the back button and resubmit the comment, I’d greeted by a notice that it’s a duplicate. Just a head’s up.

    • says

      I know.. though it has been a low priority to fix it for a while… lots of problems with mod_security on this server but as it gets hit by a lot of bots I am a little loath to just remove it.

  10. says

    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, and let’s see just how many people agree with Chris, and how many with Matt and the GPL.

  11. videociks says

    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.