As anyone can see from looking through past posts, I almost never blog here. I mostly post on the official WordPress.org blog, or toss out snippets of thought via Twitter. However, my two years of relative silence here — when it comes to the GPL and Thesis — is now at an end. Normally I would write this post and then wait a day and edit it before publishing, but in this case I’m just going to hit Publish. Tomorrow is a another day, and I can clarify anything that needs it then.

Yesterday, I met Chris Pearson, of Thesis theme infamy. How? Why? What? I accepted an invitation to speak at a real estate convention largely for the chance to meet him in a neutral situation (not a WordCamp, etc). I introduced myself in the hall and we went to sit down and talk in a room some speakers were using. As we walked down the hall, he mentioned wanting to get an iPad while in town that day, though supplies were scarce. I offered to call “my guy” at the SF Apple store to ask if he could snag one from stock and hold it for Chris. Even though Chris had previously been a confrontational jerk to most of my co-workers, collaborators and friends, I am just a generally nice person. If I can help, I want to. I made the call.

While pretty much everyone knows that I agree with the argument that themes and plugins count as derivative works and therefore inherit the WordPress license (GPLv2), I’ve really tried to stay out of the mud when it comes to the fighting. Even when people have baited me in the past, said mean things on Twitter, misrepresented/misquoted me or in any other way were just plain uncool, I tried to stay calm, think about the overall impact to the community and make love not war (figuratively speaking). I’ve traveled to meet with WordPress community members to discuss the issues that had them riled to see if we could come to some understanding; in most cases we wound up agreeing and became friends, while in others we at least agreed to disagree and be polite for the good of the community. It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. I was raised to be a nice girl, and even when someone is a total jackass, that training usually sticks. I am basically an overgrown hippie who just wants everyone to get along and be nice, no dogma.

There is a history of antipathy between Thesis/Chris and WordPress/Matt that predates me. I have to admit that when I first started working with the WordPress open source project and I would see their squabbling on Twitter, it reminded me of boys kicking each other in the schoolyard. I began my job with the WordPress redesign for 2.7 in 2008, right around this time of year, though I’ve known Matt and WordPress for much longer. When I started paying more attention to the issue of themes being distributed under proprietary licenses, I was actually pretty astounded. The license text itself seems pretty simple, and has been around for several decades. Each copy of WordPress comes with the license attached, and states that derivative works inherit the GPL license when distributed. I’m not going to get into the details of the license here, that’s freely available all over the web. The thing is, most of the theme developers who were distributing WordPress themes under restrictive licenses either didn’t understand the GPL, or just hadn’t really thought about it too hard, especially those coming from agency or proprietary design/software backgrounds. Those people? Pretty much all went GPL once they realized what was going on. A few others, however, simply don’t think that the license applies to them.

When I met Chris Pearson yesterday, I didn’t expect him to jump up and say, “Yay for GPL and here I come with license compliance!” Based on things some people had told me, I expected the aggressive dude from Twitter to be more of a persona than a person; I thought I’d be talking with an intelligent guy who just had a different point of view. It seemed to start out that way. However, it didn’t last, and many circuitous statements later, it became clear that Chris had no interest in peace in the community nor any respect for the license. It was almost impossible to make sense of his assertions. In one breath he would claim that Thesis had nothing to do with WordPress, then in the next would say that he builds on top of WordPress because of the profit potential (broad user base). In one breath he would say that the GPL wasn’t valid, then in another breath would say that because of the GPL he was allowed to build on WordPress for free. Discussion addressing respect for the developers went nowhere, as did points about license structures, pricing, promotion, community, and more; pretty much they all wound up with Chris saying he didn’t care about the GPL, and that he would continue to license Thesis as he does for as long as he could make money doing so. I had planned to write up this conversation last night, but frankly, had started to wonder if someone had slipped me a roofie, because I found it hard to believe anyone could be so convinced that he was above the law (at one point he asked me where the cops were, if he was breaking the law).

I stated over and over that for WordPress, a lawsuit was an ineffective use of time and money that we could be using to improve our software and grow the community resources that support it, and Chris said something similar with regard to prosecuting his own pirates (he mentioned Malaysians profiting from his work several times). Yet somehow it kept coming back to him saying we should sue him if we were so sure that the GPL was valid.

The hour or more of this type of discussion was exhausting. At one point he raised his voice so loudly that another speaker in the green room (we were at a conference) shushed us. There were a couple of other guys there who tried to back me up (not related to WordPress project team; they were real estate guys), but Chris would have none of it. We parted ways and I was terribly disappointed, not just because I am sick of this whole thing, but because he really proved my pollyanna people-are-inherently-good-and-want-to-do-the-right-thing-if-they-only-knew-what-that-was attitude to be total crap. He showed me that he does not care about the good of the community. He wouldn’t even have a straightforward discussion. His responses to questions had more misdirection than a Penn & Teller act. Ask about the license and he responded with a statement about creating solutions that work or the quality of WordPress code (which he totally dissed, btw). Eventually I asked him why not just move to a platform that was licensed in a way he approved, and he said he was working on it, but that as long as WordPress was as profitable as it is, he wasn’t leaving. He kept claiming it was “just smart business.”

1. It’s smart business to adhere to the license of any software you use. Have we not learned this in this litigious age?

2. It’s professional to answer the actual questions someone asks rather than spouting pre-determined talking points.

What makes me think they are practiced talking points? Today, a brouhaha arose on Twitter under the hashtag #thesiswp. I was trying to avoid it, but eventually it came down to Matt and Chris and they wound up going on a live webcast to debate it. Chris was saying the same things he’d said to me yesterday, verbatim. In one exchange he said iPhone instead of iPod, but otherwise, he repeated almost every single thing he’d said to me the day before. I challenge anyone to listen to the debate and come away thinking Chris Pearson has anyone’s interests at heart other than his own. Frankly, I still don’t want WordPress to sue him. I still think it is a massive waste of time and money that could be put to much better use. I think he should either respect the license or choose a different platform. But if a court case will settle this once and for all, maybe it would help the community in the end; at the very least, it would make it all less confusing.

Oh, and after Chris walked away? “My Apple guy” called to verify that there were no more iPads available in the store, but he’d gotten one out of other stock and was holding it. Too bad Chris didn’t bother to ask me about it before he left.

Yesterday sucked. Today sucked, too. I’m really ready for a day to arrive when all this crap stops taking our attention, and we can focus on documentation, forums, plugin repository enhancements, fixing the media uploader, etc. You know, get back to the business of building WordPress for those 20 million+ WordPress users around the world who owe their publishing freedom to the GPL, and are glad to have it.

** I would have linked to dozens of tweets by various community members to support this narrative, but writing this all out makes me want to go get a drink with friends instead. I’ll come back and add links  later.

128 thoughts on “#thesiswp

  1. A few years ago, this(GPL compliance) is the same issue that hounded Joomla. A lot of mod and theme creators were bitching around. No actions were taken against them but the users were informed and educated as a result of the the whole debacle.

    At that time, WordPress is ‘just a blogging platform’. The issue on the WP license back then is not yet enforced. And now that the license is being enforced, those who profit from it and yet not honoring the license like Chris are bitching around.

    And with that, I’m hoping that WP users be aware of the license. I think that’s the only positive thing that may come out of it.

    And by the way, I hope this issue to end soon. It’s dragging on, eh.

  2. I don’t know Chris, I don’t know Matt, and I don’t use WordPress, nor do I have any stake in the community. Be that as it may, there are a few critical points here which are going unaddressed:

    – Maybe you don’t like Chris Pearson. Heck, maybe he’s objectively an asshole. Whatever the case, it is *abundantly* clear that he has trouble communicating effectively under duress. However, *that does not mean he is wrong*. If anything, he probably feels like he’s been backed into a corner by the WordPress community and leadership. Given that he’s built a business on this platform, I can’t say that I blame him for being a little riled up.

    – People keep bringing up the fact that other WordPress theme developers have gone along with the GPL mandate and have been quite happy doing so. I can’t think of any point that’s less relevant to the discussion. This isn’t a contest about the popularity of an idea. Chris has taken a firm stance on an issue in which he believes he is morally and legally justified. The *only* question then, is whether or not he is, in fact, right.

    – This brings me to my final and most important point: **Neither you nor anyone have any legal basis for telling Chris that what he’s doing is wrong.** The fact is, quite simply, that the question of what constitutes a derivative work under the GPL is mostly legally ambiguous. There are valid, reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue, but at this point, all anyone can offer on it, (even an attorney) is an opinion. This will remain the case until the definition of a derivative work (specifically) is tested in court. If you want to publicly shame someone for not following along with some arbitrary rules, that’s up to you, but don’t feel like you’re entitled to some sense of righteousness. All you and Chris have between you is a difference of opinion, nothing more. Can you agree to disagree, or can’t you?

    • A license isn’t arbitrary. If it were, companies like Microsoft wouldn’t be able to go after software pirates.

      Chris was not under duress when he spoke with me the day before his debate with Matt. We were in a comfortable room with couches. He had the same demeanor.

  3. Not that was looking for it, but I feel validated at the moment.
    Until about 6 months ago, I really didn’t give much thought to the Thesis theme – until like some freakish fire ant attack – I had so many almost seemingly formidable requests to use the Thesis Framework n the course of a week, that I was sure someone had played a practical joke on me and placed some sore of ad stating that I was a “Thesis Theme God” or something.
    Personally and professionally, I have never used it – and didn’t even know much about it. And, to see what the fuss was all about, I started to do a little deeper digging.
    My business relies mostly on creating custom WP themes for clients who are not looking for that “blog feel” but more of a professional polished site. We build each of them from the ground up based on their individual needs. So when I saw how the Thesis business model actually functioned, I was shocked.
    Now, many months later, I am no longer shocked, I am actually pissed off. I still get calls from clients who heard about Thesis, or saw an ad about Thesis, or was told my someone that it was THE theme, and they want me to build their site with it. I outright refuse. My response is always, “Yes, Thesis IS a piece of work – if really HAVE to have it, buy it, and set it up yourself – you don’t need me. If you want something customized for your needs, you’re guys. And, for future reference, we won’t work on sites with the Thesis theme.”

    Thanks for helping me see that my initial thoughts that the guy/company behind it, really must be a ‘piece of work’ were accurate, and it was not just me.

  4. Jane, you’ve succeeded in missing my point almost entirely. The license itself is not arbitrary. However, that Chris Pearson is in violation of the license *is your opinion*.

    The best you can do right now is think/believe/assert that he’s breaking the law. He’s not *actually* breaking the law until a court decides he is.

    In fact, I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that, by stating objectively that Chris has broken the law (with the intent to damage his business, and rather than disclaiming it as his own opinion), I wouldn’t be surprised if Matt has exposed himself to a potential libel lawsuit.

    • If I cheat on my taxes, whether I’m caught or not, I’ve broken the law. It’s the expectation of civilized society that the laws and contracts we create will be abided by. Judges only come into play when someone chooses to live outside those written agreements of conduct and another entity comes forward to enact punitive enforcement that must be proven in court in order for a judge to confirm or deny the charge and decree appropriate punishment/reparations. If you’re speeding on a highway, you’re breaking the law. If a guy on Delancey St. is selling stolen handbags or pirated copies of Microsoft Office, he’s breaking the law. While our system doesn’t punish that guy until Coach or Microsoft proves in court that he has in fact sold the stolen handbags/pirated software (as known stolen goods/in violation of the license agreement), let’s face it, that guy knows that what he’s doing is wrong; he’s just made a personal decision to try to get away with it because of the profit motive. My conversation with Chris, which you were not present for (but which was very similar to the interview with Matt on Mixergy), made it very clear that Chris felt that he would be able to keep ‘getting away with it’ and maximize his profits indefinitely without repercussions. If you really want to argue against the legal validity of the GPL and Thesis’s violation of it, maybe there’s room on their legal team for you? We tried for two years to work it out personally, without going the legal route. If we have to go the legal route now, no one from the WordPress core team has any doubt in their minds that we will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Thesis violated the WordPress license terms. I suggest reading the post by Mark Jaquith in which he lays out some of the technical reasoning behind this.

  5. I wish I could have pointed a client who wanted to use Thesis to the interview (hadn’t taken place yet, unfortunately). The over-the-top arrogance Chris Pearson demonstrated has got to translate into his product and product support. Mr. Pearson needs to develop his own platform and leave the WordPress community, which he clearly disrespects, apart from his claims to the contrary.

  6. Personally, I would like to see people who believe that Chris is wrong and needs to be taught a lesson about justice, fair play, and legality to raise the funds so that WordPress as an entity doesn’t have to fund the lawsuit.

    I’m not pledging $10,000 or anything, but I personally would like to see Pearson sued and I wonder if the huge developer base of people like me who are interested in fair play would be able to fund it so that WordPress can keep using their resources to push forward on things that matter.

  7. *Sigh*… again, Jane, you seem to either refuse or are flat-out unable to see outside your own small view of the situation. The fact that Chris is not operating outside the law has nothing to do with *him* getting caught or going to court, and has everything to do with the fact that there’s no case law on the books that establishes what constitutes a “derivative work” under the GPL.

    Personally, I *do* hope Chris gets taken to court. I hope he gets taken to court because when he wins (oh yes, he will win), the GNU General Public License will finally, once and for all be de-clawed, legions of developers will be spared a great deal of hand-wringing, and I’ll be able to come back to this blog with a huge grin on my face, and (very smugly) say ‘I told you so’.

    Oh, and I have read Mark’s post. As with this one, it represents a very biased, narrow, view of the issue, and doesn’t even seem particularly well thought-out. He’s mainly parroting the opinions and reasoning of the SFLC, and does *nothing* to address any counter-arguments or examples (of which there are many).

  8. I also hope that we’ll sue Chris and settle this issue once and for all, so other potential GPL violators will think twice before they do it.

    In the meantime, maybe few good programmers could create a clone of Thesis and release it under GPL and for free as “Antithesis” :)

    Sometimes people are so full of themselves that they don’t listen to a reason, until something hits them and it hurts. I think, Chris needs that badly to wake up…

  9. I’m a big proponent of the GPL and see a possible solution here. If Thesis is, by default, GPL because it is inheriting the license from WordPress (despite what Pearson wishes were true) then I, personally, am within my rights to redistribute it. As is anyone else.

    So, why don’t we GPL his theme for him. I have a copy of Thesis from a torrent site. I can publish it. We can all publish it. And what can he do? Then the lawsuit is on Pearson instead of WordPress. It’s sort of a mass civil disobedience.

    I know it would be provoking, but I love this license, what it stands for, and what it means. So why not?

    • Getting premium themes off torrent sites is not a good idea. Although this whole debate comes down to distribution, the fact is that I (and the rest of the core team) want to see people rewarded for their work. Also, you’re more likely to get a version of the theme with spam/malware inserted into it. If you want to use a commercially-supported theme, I recommend just buying the theme from the original developer.

      • I’m not interested in his theme, but I am interested in openly distributing it because it is clearly under the GPL and I have that right. I hope that makes sense.

        Why honor Pearson’s attempt to copyright his theme when it’s not legitimate? I say, distribute it regardless. Treat it as if it is GPL *because it is*. Why pretend otherwise?

        Right now, someone would have to sue Pearson. If his theme is openly distributed, then he has to become the plaintiff and track down every person distributing the theme.

        In my other life I am an activist/organizer/artist. This is what I would do to change the power dynamic and put pressure on someone doing the wrong thing to do the right thing. Pearson doesn’t seem like he’s going to suddenly honor the GPL on his own.

        Pearson is in violation of the GPL so no one is under the obligation to honor his tacked on license. By “violating” his license Pearson is forced to make a move to sue or comply with the GPL. If he sues, then you can get the EFF and the FSF involved… which I realize isn’t exactly what anybody wants, but could be a next step.

        I realize this might sound left field, but I hope it makes sense.

    • The right way to handle this is for Matt to sue Pearson. In fact he really has to, in order to protect the copyright, and to protect the interests of the contributors.

      IANAL, but I wouldn’t be too sure you can redistribute Thesis in any event, because Thesis is in violation of the license. You might simply be adding to the problem by increasing the distribution of code that violates the WP license. You can’t change the license for Chris Pearson, he has to do it.

  10. The SFLC represents their members free, so a lawsuit wouldn’t cost anything for WordPress.

    Every time I read something from the people at WordPress about how they want to avoid a lawsuit because it wouldn’t be fun and would just involve giving money to lawyers I want to throw up.

    WordPress would rather slander those who don’t play the way they want, rather than actually go to court, where they would probably lose.

    • It’s not just about money, it’s about time and energy. Just responding to this debate alone has cost us half a week of productivity. A lawsuit that drags out for a year or two would have a negative impact on our community of contributing developers. If it comes down to a lawsuit being the only way to resolve it, then it’ll happen, and we’ll just have to suck up the fact that we’re all going to lose a lot of time that we’d have rather spent in more productive ways. No matter how you look at it, resorting to a lawsuit is reactive (and punitive), rather than proactive. As much as possible we should try to resolve our differences through proactive means.

  11. As far as Pearsons, yes, he’s a tool, and if he really did lift GPL code from WordPress and other plugins and put it in Thesis then he’s in violation of the GPL.

    But the discussion about themes being GPL is ridiculous.

  12. I’m not sure whether abandoning your usual policy of thinking before posting was a good idea.

    I don’t know. I feel sort of disappointed that this has sunk to the level of personal attacks. I gather from this post that you dislike Chris Pearson’s manner as much as his stance on the GPL but I’m not convinced that is, or should be, relevant to the issue in hard. I think my problem arises from my uncertainty whether you are bitching about him in a personal capacity (fine, though it might have been better kept among friends) or a professional one (kind of not fine).

    • I didn’t say I posted without thinking, I said I posted without taking a day to edit. I’ve been *thinking* about this issue for almost two years.

      I think this debate has mostly stayed away from personal attacks; the focus is on the business decisions and the justifications a businessperson (Pearson) has made for those decisions. If I were commenting on his personal use of language, habits, or hairstyle, you would have a point, but just saying that someone is using personal attacks doesn’t make it the case. This is a business debate, nothing more.

  13. Hi Jane,
    What a truly great honest post. Thank you for giving us all an insight into how this is affecting you at the ground level as one of the WordPress community leaders.

    I am a hippie at heart too and also wish every person’s good nature could be found with enough kindness and understanding. I think you did your absolute best to do so and I am so disappointed Chris purely barked his opinion at you without making any effort to listen and understand you actually wanted a positive outcome for him.

    Thank you so much for your ongoing passions and support for the greater good in the WordPress community and I hope this distracting situation is resolved peacefully for all of our sakes sooner rather than later.

    Kind regards

  14. Everybody Hates Chris..lol that makes me laugh.

    I’m mostly tired of this topic because it’s been going on for a couple years. And if someone was going to do anything about it (matt) he should do it already. Every corporation has legal counsel to handle situations like this. That way Matt can continue on in his quest to grow the “community”. I mean seriously..this sounds like a Kobe & Shaq squabble.

  15. Jane,

    Thanks for posting your thoughts. I can certainly identify with one of your frustrations you’ve articulated in particular.

    “I’m really ready for a day to arrive when all this crap stops taking our attention, and we can focus on documentation, forums, plugin repository enhancements…”

    In my opinion *distractions* can cause much more harm to a project like WordPress than license infringement. Distractions will absolutely kill your morale, breed cynicism, and suck the fun and life out of what you love to do.

    If I can offer a small piece of advice that I’ve learned the hard way: Yes, shed light on a subject (as you’ve done really well here), but then move on. Life is short. Too short, in fact, to worry about the d-bags of the world. His actions will have their own consequences, and the community will do the right thing. It always does.

    Again, thanks for shedding light on the subject. Now wash your hands of this nonsense and get back to having some fun! =)

  16. Sorry I have to post as anonymous. I have a developer’s license of Thesis and 90% of my sites are WP+Thesis. I did build a WP theme (GPL’d) but was denied an entry to the WP themes directory since I had ads to proprietary themes on my sites.

    As I can understand the WP community is right about the license, however the stance is too aggressive (a theme can’t be approved for the WP themes directory because of the ads on the developer’s site?)

    At the end of the day I still want to be running WP+Thesis but sad that I’ve decided to look for a GPL compliant framework. But anyways, what has GPL got to do with the ads on a theme developer’s site? Arn’t we trying to enforce GPL way too far? And if we are, let’s set an example out of Chris for all to know.

    • The thing with ads is basically that wordpress.org doesn’t want to promote non-compliant themes. Some people were putting in compliant themes just to link to the site with their non-compliant themes, or sites where they made lots of ad/affiliate revenue from non-compliant themes. It’s kind of an extreme definition of “not promoting,” I’ll agree, but I think the net benefit is that fully compliant themes/business promoting compliant themes are getting more traffic, which is good.

  17. Here’s a case of GPL/derivative works implications etc. IANAL, but may be this helps put things in a clear perspective what this debate is all about. The sad part… the case is not settled yet (as per the article, maybe someone can look it up), but it does help explain what constitutes a derivative work and its implications under GPL. Note: I have no clue about the differences between GPL and GPLv2.

  18. Jane,

    You may not want to redistribute Thesis because it’s not great code (a bit of a dig back at Pearson for attacking the WP code?), but that doesn’t address Steve Lambert’s idea – which I share.

    What’s to stop someone buying Thesis, putting all the GPL header stuff back in (and maybe tidying up the code!), and then offering it online?

    Not suggesting WordPress.org/Automattic do this but someone must be up for it.

    Put the onus on Pearson to sue.

  19. Just now reading this. I’d followed a bit of the #thesiswp discussion on Twitter, but hadn’t (and won’t) watch the video of the discussion between Matt and Chris. However, Jane, your post here is the final straw that has convinced me to abandon Thesis theme.

    I don’t make money from my blog, so that’s no incentive. (Full disclosure: I received one affiliate payment for Thesis; I’ve received none from my affiliation with Scrivener nor from the Amazon ads on my site.) However, the other articles I’ve read in the past week have convinced me, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that Thesis violates the GPL.

  20. I’ve just listened to the mixergy (Chris Pearson – Matt Mullenweg) interview and my brain just fall from my head after hearing Chris Pearson bigged up himself as ‘one of the 3 most important people in the history of WordPress. And he was so rude throughout the interview.

  21. Hi Jane, I was one of the guys in the room with you. Yes it was heated and yes, Chris needs to learn how to form an argument that is not just a blast of words that on reflection didn’t amount to much.

    He has a right to his opinion and he has a right to defend his viewpoint. You also have a right to defend the GPL.

    I dont think legal will get anyone anywhere, but a “WordPress Fail” website with companies or individuals who flagrantly go against the GPL may well be a good idea, people are less likely to deal with companies or individuals who do not comply with these things.

    Hope you are well and it was lovely to catchup at the Conference.

    Regards Peter RIcci

  22. Apparently I’m still subscribed to comments here, lol.

    And I agree with Dan. Two years later and this still makes for a terrific read. I actually forgot some of the details including the reference to being in the top three WordPress devs. of all time. That sure is a warped perception.

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