Pearson versus Mullenweg, a history

This is a preview of the first part of my upcoming article on Thesis, Automattic, and WordPress.

Chris Pearson and Matt Mullenweg have hardly communicated with one another in the last five years, but they are ideological enemies. They are both wealthy individuals thanks to their online endeavors, with very strong personalities and unshakable beliefs on business and software.

Matt Mullenweg co-founded WordPress, founded Automattic, and is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation. He runs a billion dollar “unicorn” startup centered on a culture of embracing open source technology and has achieved incredible success embracing principles counterintuitive to either Silicon Valley or big corporate culture. He's paving a new path for how to create a valuable software company while religiously defending and promoting open source software.

Chris Pearson founded DIYThemes and helped pioneer the early WordPress commercial theme industry. He has run his business successfully for over seven years, despite unique hurdles that result from a very public dispute with Mullenweg in 2010. He vehemently defends his work as his own non-derivative achievement and rejects the religiosity and cult mentality that he believes exists in the WordPress ecosystem. He views WordPress as a huge chunk of the web, available to be monetized — which he has done so to the tune of millions of dollars — but he does not believe he must adopt Matt Mullenweg's principles in order to run his own business and protect his own inventions.

By all normal definitions, Mullenweg and Pearson have done incredibly well for themselves. However, from a pure size perspective and principles aside, Mullenweg is the big nation army and Pearson is the small revolutionary militia. Mullenweg views Pearson as a threat to everything he stands for and has worked to accomplish, and Pearson views Mullenweg as an overbearing figure with no true authority over his decisions.

Mullenweg has the motivation, resources, and ability to squash Pearson — and indeed most thought he'd done so already. While he has far fewer resources, Pearson has some tools available to protect his business or to potentially even disrupt the entire WordPress ecosystem as we know it today.

During their first conflict in 2010, and in the resurgent one going on now, Mullenweg and Pearson have both at times made mistakes, acted childishly, or been in the wrong. Both also have merit in various aspects of their positions. Neither conflict, so publicly debated, reflects well on the WordPress ecosystem as a whole — even though I believe it is right that each conflict is best observed under a public eye, as the results can affect so many other businesses and potentially even WordPress itself.

With this post, I aim to outline the entire conflict; to describe the implications past, present and future; to highlight non-WordPress comparisons for precedent and potential implications; and to share my own thoughts on who is in the right and who is in the wrong, as viewed for the good of the global WordPress community.

A history of conflict

The commercial theme movement started in 2007 and took off in 2008. Thesis was one of the pioneers of commercial WordPress themes. The theme industry was young and evolving rapidly, and many sellers hardly considered or understood licensing issues at all.

Many of the sources for this period are from Siobhan McKeown's excellent account in the book, Milestones: The Story of WordPress (which I'll refer to as Milestones).

Themes as derivative works of WordPress

WordPress is licenced by the GNU General Public License (GPL), version 2. The GPL ensures certain freedoms that protect both WordPress and those that utilize it. The “four freedoms” that are the heart of the GPL are as follows:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

As WordPress co-founder phrased it in the Post Status Slack, “The GPL is meant to be restrictive for developers and permissive for users.” The GNU philosophy page and subsequent articles are a good resource for understanding the nature of the license.

The GPL is a Copyleft license, which creates the “stipulation that the same rights be preserved in derivative works down the line.” In an immature theme market, licensing was given relatively little notice, and many theme authors provided their themes with no license or proprietary licenses.

In late 2008, more than 200 free WordPres themes were removed from the WordPress.org theme repository. While many of the themes were removed due to spammy links, some were pulled due to GPL violations within the themes or within the theme upsells that were linked from the theme listings.

The move, which was made without announcement, shocked many theme providers that felt they were unfairly included in the group of removed themes. The situation created a spark and initiated a serious debate about theme licensing.

Authors were concerned that GPL licensed themes would mean that their themes would be bought and freely distributed, removing their ability to make money from their works. A few, such as Brian Gardner and his Revolution theme, changed their licensing as a result of conversations with Mullenweg and Toni Schneider, Automattic's CEO at the time. In Brian's case, he made his theme free and offered paid support services.

Eventually, most authors “selling” themes started actually selling support, access to download, and updates for their themes. This model was both GPL compatible, as well as workable for authors to get paid.

In mid-2009, Matt Mullenweg posted on the official WordPress blog that he was introducing a new commercial theme listing page on WordPress.org, and he also shared an opinion he requested from the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), where they determine that the two themes packaged with WordPress are derivative works.

The SFLC opinion did leave room for a “split license” where the WordPress and PHP code must inherit the GPL, and the CSS, Javascript, and images could be under a proprietary license:

In conclusion, the WordPress themes supplied contain elements that are derivative of WordPressโ€™s copyrighted code. These themes, being collections of distinct works (images, CSS files, PHP files), need not be GPL-licensed as a whole. Rather, the PHP files are subject to the requirements of the GPL while the images and CSS are not. Third-party developers of such themes may apply restrictive copyrights to these elements if they wish.

Finally, we note that it might be possible to design a valid WordPress theme that avoids the factors that subject it to WordPressโ€™s copyright, but such a theme would have to forgo almost all the WordPress functionality that makes the software useful.

This settled the issue for nearly all theme sellers. Some were still privately disgruntled, but most moved to either 100% GPL or a split license, and the doomsday scenarios never came; the theme industry continue to thrive.

Thesis holds out

But not everyone agreed to go either GPL or split license. Chris Pearson kept his Thesis theme under a proprietary license.

Thesis was one of the most popular and flexible themes in the world, and DIYThemes boasted on Andrew Warner's Mixergy podcast of revenues of $1.2 million+ over a 12-18 month period in 2010. Mullenweg and Pearson critized one another publicly, and Warner invited them both to Mixergy where they debated the merits of GPL licensing.

By most accounts, Mullenweg had the better argument on the Mixergy episode, and also came off as a calmer and more collected personality — in contrast to Pearson's often heated, and sometimes very strange, statements.

The debate continued between Mullenweg, Pearson, and a variety of WordPress community members and their blogs. Mullenweg was extremely agressive, to the extent that he offered to buy alternative commercial themes for users of Thesis that agreed to switch. Mullenweg tells me that many took him up on his offer, but it was, “less than a thousand.”

Pearson held his ground over the following days until an admission by one of his own team members, where the employee admitted to wholesale copying of code in Thesis from WordPress code, which violates the WordPress copyright.

At this point, Pearson finally capitulated and announced that Thesis would be a split license GPL compatible theme, and the debate died down. Pearson put his head down and started working on Thesis 2.

He released Thesis 2 in late 2012, and by this time the debate was cool — the community had moved on to other drama (yes, even more GPL drama) — and the release of Thesis 2 was largely ignored outside of DIYThemes' audience, which was quite large but also largely isolated from the WordPress “community” that cares about stuff like licensing.

Therefore, not many people paid attention to the new Thesis or the licensing it contained. Mullenweg, however, was still paying attention.


 

Expect the rest, which is really the meat of the article, soon! I just wanted to give members an early preview with the introduction to thank you for your patience these last several days.

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