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Top Five Things I've Learned from the WordPress/Thesis Debate

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As Brad McCarty at TNW noted, the battle is officially over. Chris Pearson, who creased the Thesis Theme has decided to change the licensing to his product, so that it is now split under a partial GPL license. WordPress’ Matt Mullenweg seems to be happy with this compromise, as it allows the theme to be compliant with GPL rules, while Chris also seems satisfied with the split GPL option. Both have been tweeting about the debate’s end, and I’m sure followers on both sides of the issue are glad the debate is over, at least for now.

In case you have no clue what I’m talking about, you can read my original post about WordPress versus Thesis. Make sure you check out the comments section too, and also head to Mark Jaquith’s blog to read his post explaining the WordPress position on this issue.

While the standoff might be over, I do think there are some take-away messages to be had. It’s kinda my schtick – finding the life lesson in any news story – in case you haven’t noticed. Don’t worry; it annoys my friends in real life, too, not just my blog readers! Here are the top five things I’ve learned from the WordPress/Thesis debate:

1. Your community is important.

Matt talked a lot about the WordPress community throughout the debate, but another clear community emerged as well: supporters of Thesis. While I will say that I think both sides got a bit unprofessional at times, having supporters is a major advantage in any debate. Even more important? The ideas for compromising that emerged from both sides. When you have a community of supporters, they can introduce new ideas and help you see an issue in a different light. A community isn’t just about people cheering you on – it is about the added value that you get from both collective thought and from individual innovative ideas.

2. The world is about compromise.

I’ve seen a lot of people tweeting and blogging about the need to stand up for your beliefs, and how Thesis shouldn’t have backed down. While I do think that having strong personal convictions is important, being someone who can compromise with other people is much more important, in my eyes. That’s what makes this world turn, dear readers. When two people have very different beliefs, you can each do your best to accommodate the other, or you can start a war. Sometimes, you need to step back from a situation and ask yourself if you’re standing up for your beliefs or just being stubborn. There’s a difference.

3. The law wasn’t written for bloggers – be prepared.

I think this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to blogging and the law. This is a brand new form of media, relatively, and when the GPL text was written, no one could have foreseen that someday there would be an issue between a blogging platform and a theme developer. We also saw a big hullabaloo last year regarding a change in FTC rules regarding how blogs handle reviews, affiliate links, and so forth. Like I said, tip of the iceberg. As the blogging industry continues to grow and change, we’re going to discover even more laws that create gray areas because they weren’t written with this kind of media in mind. Bloggers need to be prepared for these issues to arise.

4. Bloggers need thick skin.

Regardless of who was right or wrong in this debate, or even whether or not the lead debaters (i.e., Chris and Matt) were professional, hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people from both sides weighed in with their opinions. Not all of them were nice. In fact, some of them were downright mean. In my opinion, we should all leave insults and name-calling at the door, but if you’re going to post an opinion online, you have to be ready to deal with this type of behavior. It’s definitely worse in some industries than others, but all bloggers need to be mentally and emotionally prepared to have someone totally attack their opinions. When I first started blogging, I’m not ashamed to say that a few comments brought me to tears. I was ready for opposing viewpoints and even negative reactions, but I had no idea that people who didn’t even know me could be so mean. Now, I’m more prepared to deal with rude comments, and I’m a better blogger because of it. More importantly, I’m much better at responding to mean comments without losing my cool, which is something all bloggers need to learn. When you respond in a really emotional way, you just become a joke. Point in case (warning, video has strong language):

5. Read all sides of a story.

This last take-away message is more for readers than for bloggers, but I’ve never met a blogger who isn’t also a supporter of other blogs, so it’s still relevant. Whenever you read about an issue where there are clearly two (or more) sides to the story, make sure you take the time to research what everyone is saying before you post your own opinion on your blog, in a comment, or on a social networking site. When the debate got really heated between Matt and Chris, one of the posts I saw referenced fairly regularly was on Jane’s blog. While I don’t think that Jane was lying about her experience, I also know that it would be impossible for her to go into the situation unbiased, as she’s a WordPress employee. I also think that this is just one view – I’ve also heard stories from people who say that Chris is a great person to be around, as well as people who have said negative things about Matt. The point is, if that was the first post someone read about the issue and the didn’t take the time to read anything else, they wouldn’t really be getting a grasp on the debate as a whole. Even with all the research I did, you can see in the comments section of my previous post that people added new information about the topic that changed the way I thought about it slightly.

When you read something, even if it is from a blogger you respect and love reading on a daily basis, take a moment to read other opinions on the same topic. You’ll be glad you did.

Allison Boyer is a writer for BWE’s blog and the owner/manager of After Graduation. Every time she writes a post that involves YouTube videos, she ends up lost on that site, watching funny videos for hours.

Is WordPress Bullying Developers?

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In any industry, large companies have a responsibility to use their influence responsibly. There’s a lot of gray area here, of course, but I do feel like some entities throw around their clout to pressure partners, clients, customers, and so forth into making certain decisions. When a large company is pressuring a “little guy” to do something, sometimes it is easier to just bite the bullet and do it, even if you don’t agree.

With that said, I hope you’ll watch this video from Mixergy:

The fight on Twitter has been nothing less than high school-quality, in my opinion. Both sides are flinging nasty comments and refusing to budge on the issue. There’s no compromising, or even talk of compromising, and it’s gotten to the point where supporters on both sides are bad-mouthing one another without even really understanding the problem.

I feel like it’s Team Edward versus Team Jacob out there.

I was quite disturbed after watching the above video and reading other opinions on the topic, so I did a little independent research. What I’ve found is that this case is fuzzy at best. GPL might be a great license most of the time, but when it comes to this situation, it’s pretty confusing. Personally, I think that WordPress totally believes that how they’re interpreting the law is right…and I also believe that they’re wrong.

When you create a product under GPL, like WordPress, any derivative product is also required to carry the GPL license. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t sell the product, but it does mean that the product can be modified and redistributed by others. If you choose to redistribute a GPL product with your own modifications, you have to do so under a GPL license as well.

You can see where the problem arises between Thesis and WordPress. Thesis is a premium theme (i.e., not free) specifically made for WordPress, but the creator, Chris Pearson, doesn’t want to distribute it under the GPL. If he did so, it would give anyone the right to modify it, even just slightly and sell it as well, or even give it away for free. He says that themes are not derivative works, so should not be subject to GPL laws. WordPress disagrees, saying that theme don’t work without WordPress, so they are derivative works.

Here’s how I see it:

Let’s say WordPress is milk, and milk is available for anyone to use in whatever recipe they want, under a GPL. I create a cookie recipe that uses milk, so my recipe must also be open for anyone to use. Milk is a part of what I’m doing, so the creators of milk state that unless I’m willing to give away my recipe under GPL as well, I’m not allowed to use milk. It makes sense. Even though I put hard work into my cookie recipe, I can’t sell my cookies without giving away the recipe.

Now let’s say that Chris Pearson created a type of cereal. His cereal doesn’t use milk as one of the ingredients, but what’s the use of eating it without milk? You do need milk to eat his cereal, but milk isn’t an ingredient in the same way it is an ingredient of my cookie recipe.

By that thinking, Chris (who is the real-life creator of Thesis) should be allowed to distribute his cereal without giving away his secret recipe for the perfect corn flake or fruit loop or whatever. He did something without using the help of milk – his product just happens to work hand-in-hand with milk.

In my opinion, Chris (switching to real life now) has the right to license his product however he wants. I believe the same of any WordPress theme. If you use pieces of the WordPress code in your product, you should have to redistribute under GPL…but creating a product that works with WordPress isn’t a derivative product necessarily.

With that said, let’s go back to my original question in the title – is WordPress bullying developers?

Yes and no. I don’t think there’s a clear black or white answer here. On one hand, yes. WordPress has been threatening to sue Chris and Thesis, and they have pretty must pressured other developers into redistributing under GPL law. However, I do believe that WordPress legitimately believes they are right. I believe that they believe are well within their rights to demand developers to use a GPL with their products. I think they see this as very black and white, and see Chris as something who is blatantly breaking the law, giving them the middle finger, so to speak. I don’t think he is. I think he has a point, and the WordPress guys are refusing to see it.

It’s a tricky situation. I actually think it would be in the best interest of everyone involved to go to court. In fact, I think that it would be in the best interest of GPL users everywhere if this case went to court so that “derivative works” would be clarified.

I’m sure there are a ton of opinions out there, both for and against WordPress. I’d love to hear ’em, so leave a comment, even if you disagree with me. 🙂

Allison Boyer is a writer for BWE’s blog and the owner/manager of After Graduation. She is not a Twilight fan, despite her reference in this post.

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