WordPress, the GPL, and Thesis

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on the internet. All of this post is speculation by a blogger.

WordPress, everyone’s favorite blogging platform, is released under the GNU GPL, an open source software license. The GPL is notable in that it not only requires that source code be made available, but that it stipulates that anyone may modify and redistribute that source code as long as the derivative works are also licensed under the GPL.

Mixed CashIs a theme integrated into WordPress closely enough that it’s required to be licensed under the GPL? This morning, Matt Mullenweg (creator of WordPress) posted a piece stating the “official” view that WordPress themes must be GPL.

How does this play with the premium (read: $$$) themes which are available for WordPress? I’m a big fan of Thesis (so much of a fan that I offer up that affiliate link), but a GPL-ed theme would wipe out the basic revenue model of “pay to use the theme.” There would still be opportunity for payment for services such as the excellent Thesis support forums, but the basic pay-to-use notion would be gone, since the code would be freely available from any number of sources.

I decided to pop the question of Thesis’ future to Chris Pearson (@pearsonified), the man behind DIYthemes which is the company that releases Thesis:

ahockley: Curious to see how this affects some premium themes, namely Thesis: http://bit.ly/txqE0 @pearsonified
pearsonified: @ahockley It won’t affect Thesis at all.
ahockley: @pearsonified Thanks for the reply… but… Thesis isn’t GPL, is it?
pearsonified: No
ahockley: @pearsonified So if Automattic says themes need to be GPL, and Thesis isn’t GPL, how does this not affect Thesis? Connect the dots for me
pearsonified: @ahockley Automattic says that, but they cannot and will not enforce it. Therefore, DIYthemes will continue to operate as normal.

Interesting way of handling the situation… sounds like Pearson isn’t planning to change his operation unless forced, and he’s confident that Automattic won’t press the issue.

Photo by stopnlook, used under Creative Commons licensing

  • http://JustinGolfs.com JustinS

    Too lazy to read Matt’s piece… are they trying to dictate that plugins also be GPL?

  • http://JustinGolfs.com JustinS

    Ok, I went and read the article. Seems to me that the same logic they use to justify requiring GPL for themes would also apply to plugins, perhaps even more so.

  • http://aaron.jorb.in Aaron Jorbin

    The interpretation by James Vasile of the Software Freedom Law Center is pretty straigtforward. The PHP of themes is required to be GPL, while the css, images and javascript does not. Thus Thesis is clearly in violation and needs to either get in compliance or risk a lawsuit that will be a lot more damagin to there revenue model than gpl compliance.

    @justinS Plugins, even more clearly than themes are derivative works and thus need to be licensed under the gpl in my not a lawyer opinion. I’ll leave the question of if it is just the php or also css, javascript, etc. that needs to be gpl up to the actual lawyers.

  • Pingback: WordPress Themes are GPL and Chris Pearson still acting like a bully » Mark Finch Thoughts()

  • Cory

    What stops someone (or many people) from taking Thesis and releasing it to the world. Can they use the same argument, DIYthemes cannot and will not enforce it?

  • Milio

    @Cory, since Thesis is not GPL it is not legally redistributable. Chris Pearson, the author, is a litigious jerk and will track you down and eat your spleen if you even consider using it in violation of his rules.

    • http://bloggervince.blogspot.com/ Vince

      But Thesis is a derivative work of WordPress and should come under GPL. As it was said, Thesis can never function without WordPress and so makes it a derivative work.

  • http://wordgrrls.com Laura

    I’m not a legal expert but it seems a simple solution for Thesis would be to branch out and become more than just a theme for WordPress. If Thesis had themes which also run on Blogger, Movable Type, Tumblr, etc then it would not have to be a derivative of WordPress would it? Instead it would be a product which stands on it’s own and includes WordPress in it’s options.

  • http://thesiscustomizationservice.com Harsh Agrawal

    I have been monitoring whole #thesiswp debate. Though being a Thesis skin dev. I still believe Matt was right till a point. Though the way he reacted on twitter was far away from professionalism and least expected from him. I will rather wait to see Matt filing a lawsuit against Thesis if he things he is also right legally. :)