Open Source vs. Open Enough (to trap you inside): The WordPress/Thesis Theme Conflict

“Pearson argued that rather than hurting the WP community, Thesis has enhanced WP and WP themes by attracting “thousands” of new users to WP.” (1)

Prima Facie (on the surface of things).  That’s where the popular argument for “I’m breaking your rules but look at the benefits to you” comes from.  It comes from looking at the short term benefits….usually first to the person breaking the rules who then wants to convince you that you will benefit, too, by breaking or compromising those same rules. But the reality is that those rules were there for a reason, maybe in some cases not a good reason, but a reason worth looking into before removing it entirely. And usually, the way to do that is not the way Chris Pearson, creator of the Thesis Theme for WordPress , has done by openly flouting it and then claiming in so many words to Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress: look what a marketing favor I’ve done you!  By Pearson’s logic in the quote above  should he think he is entitled to a cut from the WordPress marketing budget?

If you have not been following this recent WordPress/Thesis debate, it first started on Twitter between Matt and Chris:(3)

:( RT @copyblogger: @photomatt You better watch it Matt. We invited you to sue us to settle the GPL, but libel gets you a new world of hurt.(4)

Doesn’t sound any different than the schoolyard bully drawing a line in the sand, does it.  And yet, Pearson would not have any Thesis theme  at all to charge his users for if it weren’t for the hard work of all the other contributors to the  WordPress Open Source Community who gladly adhered to the Open Source GPL.  This debate has been carried by a number of blogs in the development and WordPress community and for back story I encourage you to read them.  IT World’s Brian Profitt does a straightforward job of illuminating the GPL/Derivation nuances  issue. And Promomusings penetrates more deeply into the conversation with Matt and CopyBlogger’s Brian Clark as well as others with an opinion and argument, both for and against this debate.

I’m not a GPL expert, which is why I point you to the other blogs who have already covered this aspect better than I could.  My purpose here is to be of support to the WordPress Community and the standards that started it and brought everyone this far.  So I’m throwing out some things to think about when you are looking for the easy way around developing for your clients with WordPress. Think about balancing whether its worth learning and coming up to speed so you can contribute back against getting more clients out the door with something that may not be well supported in the future because it has been sold off.

The bottom line, as those for the “just business” view of this debate should acknowledge, is that they wouldn’t have a framework to build themes on if it weren’t FREE to begin with.  The only “payment” that was asked back was that you contribute and/or license what was going to reap you financial benefit.  This is readily  summed up in this comment:

But yeah, when it comes to development frameworks, I’m absolutely a GPL/BSD/MIT-style sort of guy. Come to think of it, I’ve never paid for a development framework, but I tend to get a lot out of them and contribute back once I’m up to speed. It’s a nice way to work and build community. (5)

Scott A hits the nail on the head.  His fellow commenter, Danny, epitomizes the “business is business” attitude that reduces previous business agreements, policies and rules such as the GPL to nothing more than  “feelings” when they get in the way of your money-making.  But isn’t that why they are there in the first place? To make the community safe from predatory practices, that only at first, cross the line in a seeming beneficial fashion only to keep pushing the line past the next few hundred miles.  Nice to know that the next time you draw up your company’s mission statement, vision, 5 year plan, and policies. Remember that in the future:  if someone wants to break what you both agreed upon to make money all they have to do is define your agreement as “feelings”.:

Standing up for WordPress’ core freedoms and the GPL might make you feel good at the end of the day. However, business is business and there is no place for “feelings” there.(7)

Agreements are there for a reason.  Boundaries drawn are there for a purpose.  They create trust and they make for a stable way to make a living for the greatest number.  As Matt himself states:

However you can vote with your dollars and your feet and move to a GPL alternative. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, those who would trade freedom for convenience deserve neither. It’s a better choice in the long run anyway, history has shown just like WordPress passed up its proprietary competitors, the same will probably happen in the theme world. (6)

He’s right.  Our economy is in the mess its in because too many people listened to the Chris Pearsons of this world who skirted agreements in order to make the faster buck….and then locked people into an “open enough” deal that was in essence a trap that, in the end, caused them more trouble than it was worth for the small conveniences and easy wins up front.

Author’s Note: Here is an excellent breakdown of how WordPress Themes derive from WordPress by Mark Jaquith

Resources:

(1) Brian Profitt, “WordPress/Thesis Conflict Highlights GPL Nuances”, http://www.itworld.com/open-source/114247/wordpressthesis-conflict-highlights-gpl-nuances , July 16, 2010, IT World

(2) Image Source: Technically Personal; http://techpp.com/2009/05/12/thesis-wordpress-theme-no-big-deal-about-it

(3) Jeffro, “How To Screw Up Your Image”, http://www.wptavern.com/how-to-screw-up-your-image

(4) Matt Mullenweg, http://twitter.com/photomatt/status/1656087626

(5) Scott A, Commenter, http://www.weareinstrument.com/

(6) Matt Mullenweg, Commenter, http://ma.tt/

(7) Danny, Commenter, http://dannyarr.com/

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