WordPress v. Thesis, No Place for Legal Rule Enforcement

cfm_fb[The WordPress GPL license requires all licensees of its code to make their modifications to the WordPress code available to the public. Thesis is a very popular WordPress theme (27,000 users) that is sold by Chris Pearson, who does not make the Thesis code available. A WordPress theme, for we non-programmers, functions by symbiotically being integrated with the WordPress code that operates our blogs.]

[For the record, I am not writing today to pass legal judgment on the Mullenweg/Pearson debate on the application of the WordPress GPL to the premium WordPress Thesis theme.]

The WordPress point of view was well presented recently by Mark Jaquith here: Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress.

The Pearson position and the entire transcript and video of the articulate debate between these two outstanding talents can be found at Mixergy.

For those of you who insist on a rules based view of this dispute, the Software Freedom Law Center has opined that certain crucial parts of Thesis are derivative work that are subject to the WordPress GPL.


For those of us who generally favor the digital freedom/EFF view of copyright, Pearson presents us with a problem.

At first blush, Pearson appears to be seriously subverting the open source paradigm. At the very least, he is certainly not playing very nicely with the thousands of developers who embrace the WordPress paradigm and believe that their economic interest is best served by refusing to build black boxes.

Mullenweg and WordPress also seem to have the “law” on their side, and for some reason the CopyLeft community seems to want to embrace cogent legal analysis to deem Pearson’s work derivative and in violation of the GPL license.

I suggest, however, that Pearson presents to the WordPress community an opportunity to truly embrace digital freedom by not imposing the rule of law to abort Pierson’s experiment. WordPress has the power and “legal” right to do so, but I urge it to refrain from doing so. The true power of the open source adventure is that it is an idea that is right, not a legal straightjacket that has to be tightened.

The triumph of WordPress here will be when Pearson does not cause a massive explosion of black box solutions. The Mullenweg toleration of Pearson’s conduct without legal redress will be the true cultural revolution.

4 Replies to “WordPress v. Thesis, No Place for Legal Rule Enforcement”

  1. What is fascinating about the whole affair is that legal action will not even be necessary. There has been a quick and heavy blow back against Thesis and Chris Pearson by developers and blog owners brought on by Matt and others who value what Matt and WordPress have brought to the world – and who wish to play by the GPL rules.

    Matt has sent tweets offering to purchase a new commercial theme for those who wish to switch from Thesis but can’t get a rebate.

    Chris Pearson may find himself shut out by his fellow developers and by extension the very community that has purchased his theme and made it popular. That’s not a good place to be, especially when you’re in the position of challenging the GPL requirements of a piece of software that your theme MUST USE to be of any value.

    Thesis without WordPress is a bunch of scripting errors. WordPress without Thesis works just fine, thank you…

  2. Just a quick correction: the code for Thesis is not obscured. The license does not restrict one’s ability to modify Thesis code in any way. In fact, the only meaningful difference between the Thesis license and the GPL is concerned with distribution. The Thesis guys ask that if you use their theme for commercial use, you pay them $40 per site deployed.

    Also, Adam is completely wrong. WordPress does, in fact, not work without a theme. Does it run functions? Yes. But what exactly is the point of functions that output nothing? In my opinion, WordPress without a theme is completely and utterly useless.

    Last thing: Matt and Chris should have not engaged in the “debate” on mixergy. That was reckless for both parties. Matt committed serious libel by implying that Chris was a criminal and stated that Chris is breaking the law (as if the GPL was passed by Congress). Additionally, Matt’s gestapo-like tactics of trying to destroy Chris’ business show, beyond a doubt, that Matt is committed to tyranny and not civility. Stirring hatred and unrest against an important member of the WP community should not be tolerated. There was not a single meaningful attempt by Automattic to connect to Chris; just a bunch of hatred directed at him.

    On the other hand, Chris was overly aggressive and excited. The meek among the WP community (a group I am admittedly not a part of) were offended instantly. I understand that Matt believes that Chris has some nefarious plan, but I seriously doubt that. Chris has released at least two free, fully GPL themes in the past; one of which was the most popular theme on WordPress.com for some time.

    In the end, this is all a non-issue. It has been sensationalized by Matt and aggravated by Chris. I can’t wait to see both parties put this behind them.

  3. Just to clarify, I didn’t say WordPress would work without a theme, I said it would work without Thesis. The reverse cannot be said.

    The end of the day Thesis, as it is, violates the GPL. Period.


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