WordPress vs. Thesis, how not to win an argument

I just listened to the Mixergy interview with WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and Thesis theme creator Chris Pearson. Andrew brought these two together to try and help them find a way out of a long standing impasse: The issue was that Matt believed all WordPress themes must, by law, inherit WordPress’ GPL license. Chris’ theme Thesis did not use the GPL. This was a frustrating interview (even Mixergy’s normally unshakable Andrew Warner signed off with a heavy sigh at the end) because so little progress was made.

A while back I read (or rather listened to) a great book about conflict resolution called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher. When ever I get in an argument, I always try and remember his advice. There was a moment, probably 10 minutes in, when Chris took a position that killed any chance of resolution — he announced that he wouldn’t back down because his belief on the matter was core to who he was, and backing down would mean that he wasn’t being true to himself.

Chris took a position that he couldn’t back down from without looking (or feeling) stupid, and that’s the worst thing to do. It’s how republican vs. democrat debates end up as mud-slinging matches — it has nothing to do with rational thought and everything to do with ‘not giving in’. I don’t think Andrew could have done much more, and certainly helped them make headway. As it happens, Chris has now GPL’d those parts of his template that are based on WordPress, retaining trademarks and copyright on his own work (the graphics, css etc) which was absolutely the right thing to do. I can’t find an official announcement in the noise of the earlier debates, but I suspect Andrew had a lot to do with it.

Misunderstanding the GPL

I’m no legal expert, so I can’t tell you how to comply with the GPL. Neither are Matt, Chris or Andrew (which probably didn’t help the debate — they needed Eben Moglen or somebody on board) but I’ve spent a lot of time working with GPL software and I believe I understand the GPL pretty well. This particular issue however was clouded by the fact that WordPress is not ‘classic’ software in the sense that you write a module, compile it and then re-use it in other projects or ship a binary (much like Linux or most desktop applications). Rather, it’s scripted language. With scripted languages you just drop files in a folder and they are processed by another program (in this case PHP). I think that Matt’s interpretation was correct — any scripts that ‘hook in to’ WordPress must inherit WordPress’ license. That’s the cost of doing business with WordPress. It’s hard to understand in classic economic terms, but that is the price you pay. People who ‘don’t get it’ find this too odd to comprehend, but it’s not different than choosing a product on price — in that case if you can’t afford it, you choose another product instead. In this case, if you can’t work with the GPL’s terms, you choose another product.

I’m glad Matt and Chris found a resolution. I see a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around the GPL similar to that we saw from Chris. I also see a lot of fear from companies who would rather pay for a less-suitable proprietary product than go with a Free GPL option, because they don’t understand and are scared of the GPL. The GPL is not scary, and I think one of my next posts might be a GPL 101 for businesses.