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Is WordPress Bullying Developers?


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.


  • Deb Dorchak

    You’ve got an excellent point there, Amy. I think this should go to the courts, if anything to clarify and set a precedence for the future. There are far too many gray areas. The subject needs clarity.

    One thing I will say is I disagree that Thesis is a stand alone product. The only way it could be defined as one would be if Pearson developed his own CMS (Content Management System) and totally broke away from anything having to do with WordPress.

    Your milk analogy was good, but the way I see it, without WordPress, Thesis is useless. You can’t use it on another platform like Drupal. Without WordPress, Chris wouldn’t have had the need to even create a Thesis.

    Maybe rather than try to buck the system, he should think about creating his own system? It worked for Apple.

  • Jesse Luna

    I think there’s a fine line between pressuring and bullying.

    Is it bullying to leverage a massive community against a single business to uphold core beliefs of the community? Or is that well within the role of a community leader?

    Is it bullying to dangle promotion opportunities in exchange for compliance? Or is that an olive branch to help defray the possible business drawbacks of compliance.

    As for the cookie/cereal analogy, it appears that Thesis was using WordPress code in previous versions. That would make previous versions of Thesis a cookie.

    [Disclosure: I develop free WordPress themes, create WP video tutorials, and do WP setup consulting.]

  • Alli

    Deb, I would love to see him (or anyone) develop a platform that rivals WordPress! I like WordPress, but I also like options. I would not be surprised at all if he was working on something.

    Jesse, I didn’t know that previous versions used WP code. I totally agree that if that’s the case, it needs to be distributed under GPL.

  • Brett Bumeter

    Even though I thought the first couple paragraphs and the title of the article were way off the mark, your milk, cookie, cereal analogy was spot on for identifying the gray area in an easy to understand way.

    The problem becomes a question of whether or not Thesis is a cookie or whether it is cereal. The absence of any other platform for Thesis to run on would seem to indicate that it is a cookie and not cereal.

    The easy solution for Chris is to go make Thesis push button compatible with any other CMS or blog platform on the market (assuming he doesn’t run foul of their GPL). Until that happens it would seem that he’s on the losing side if this ever comes to a fight.

    On the other hand, I think the PR battle that Chris is facing down here would be a lot easier if he just opened up and followed the GPL for lets say a portion of Thesis, and then chop off a different portion of Thesis to be the actual product sold.

    Ergo, Offer up one part of Thesis as the cookie to be made with the milk but sell the icing on the cookie separately with a nice fat buffer between the thing of value that is not under GPL and WordPress itself.

  • Jagan Mohan

    I think the Milk and Cereal anology is flawed.

    Lets look at an alternative view:

    Milk and Cereal are independent entities in their own right. Yes, combining them together would make a great dish, but they are equal partners in creating that dish.

    However, in WordPress vs Thesis case, the very raison d’être for Thesis’s existence is WordPress. Thesis is but a minor, lets say, improvement over wordpress which is fully functional as it is, without Thesis.

    So, the points are:
    1. WordPress is an independent entity, it can exist by itself.
    2. Thesis is an aesthetic and functional improvement of wordpress.

    Since wordpress is FOSS, and Thesis hooks into WordPress in ways that are proprietary to Thesis, its quite acceptable that wordpress demand for the interaction and dependency to follow the standards and license of WordPress.

  • Jesse Luna

    Jagan, I think you’re focusing on a different aspect of the issue.

    I think Allison is looking at whether Thesis has constitutional elements (milk) in its formation. You’re talking about whether Thesis has a sole dependence on WordPress. That’s a different legal front. I don’t know what the legal precedence is on that.

  • Alli

    I love all these very smart comments! I’m not a lawyer at all, so my personal interpretation of “derivative” might be flawed. I look at that term to mean that it shares elements with the first product, not that it is made to work with the first product.

    A better example of the way I see it might be instead of milk (WordPress) and cereal (Thesis) using pants and a belt. A belt has no reason to exist without pants, but it is certainly isn’t the same as cutting off your pants to make shorts. A belt exists independently, while cut-offs are a derivative.

    Also, I really like Brett’s idea of chopping up Thesis into segments, putting some under the GPL license and having some as “add ons” to to speak, though I think you still would have the same problem, since part of Thesis would then be GPL, would something modifying it also need to be GPL. Making Thesis a more comprehensive theme across all platforms would certainly be a solution too.

    I think it’s neat, though, that people are here talking and even trying to come up with solutions, rather than just yelling at one another. See, we can all disagree and still be productive!

  • Mark Jaquith

    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.

    First, Thesis not only uses WordPress code, it uses entire chunks of it, often verbatim. The source code even notes it, saying that a particular section is “copy pasta” from WordPress. The developer admitted that he copied it from WordPress. Game, set and match to us, as far as Thesis is concerned.

    But more generally, themes do not work as separate entities. Their code integrates with WordPress code on multiple levels such that the combination is run as a single entity. Themes interact with WordPress the same way that WordPress operates with itself. A theme cannot work without this deep integration, and it cannot work without calling WordPress functions. This is why we say that themes are derivative and must be GPL — they do not behave as separate entities. They are on equal footing with WordPress itself.

  • Mark Jaquith

    That first paragraph was a blockquote, quoting the author. This theme must not style it appropriately.

  • Rick Calvert

    Great post Alli and great comments. I wanted to say thank you to you in particular Mark for weighing in. On a complete side note, there are elements of this theme that are broken. Look for a brand new one to debut here very soon 8).

  • Mitch Canter

    The only issue with that argument is that you’re implying that Thesis doesn’t need WordPress *at all* to do its thing – that when you purchase Thesis you can simply drop it on your server and do its thing, sans WordPress. Thing is, Thesis requires WordPress to operate – it’s not that one can’t run without the other (because WordPress functions fine without Thesis, but Thesis cannot do so without WordPress).

  • Rick Calvert

    btw we like WP and use it for our blog. I have numerous friends who swear by Thesis. I wish the two sides could find a compromise but it seems pretty obvious to me that without WP thesis wouldn’t exist and WP has the right to determine it’s own rules and how third party developers interact with WP.

  • Alli


    See, my knowledge of theme-making runs about as far as being able to edit a style sheet to change the color of something. The whole argument on Chris’ side makes it sound like the Thesis theme does not use any of the code from WP at all. I understand that it calls on WP functions, but I was not aware that some of the code is actually copy/paste directly from WP. That definitely changes things in my mind


    My argument wasn’t that Thesis doesn’t need WP to work, but that needing something to be functional is not how I interpret the term “derivative.” It’s the pants-belt argument that I made in another comment. I definitely see the other side of things, though…I think the term derivative is super unclear.

  • Kim Greenhouse

    I am very sad that there is friction unfolding between Thesis & WordPress. This reflects a very deeper issue with regard to digital ownership, credit and territory. It’s a very complicated issue and I would like to do a show about this subject. I may invite Chris and Mathew to join me as guests. It’s Rainmaking Time!

  • Kirk M

    Fine post Ali. My opinion on the whole thing pretty much reflects what some others are saying. That Chris needs to break up Thesis into both GPL and non-GPL sections. That being said, I really can’t believe that taking this hullabaloo into the courts would end up doing anybody much good, WordPress, Matt, Chris, Thesis, the GPL license itself, the developers and even the end users.

    The reason I say this is the courts are used to dealing with these kind of situations that lean slightly more towards the “cut and dry” end of things (I stress the word “lean” as in nothing in the courts is really that cut and dry thanks to the lawyers and big corporations throwing up smoke shows). For example, throw “Big Operating System Company” (BOSC–pick one, either one) against a program developer into the courts to decide whether the program developer violated the license agreement between BOSC and said developer is one thing–not too many shades of gray there as we’ve seen in the past. But throw FOSS/GPL against a theme developer copying and pasting chunks of a FOSS/GPL blogging/CMS platform into his non-FOSS/GPL theme and you might as well fill the courthouse sprinkler system with gray paint and let it loose.

    The reason the FOSS/GPL thing has worked so well up to now is because it has stayed out of the courts for the most part. But shine the legal spotlights onto it and (God forbid) let lawyers get a hold of this particular situation (who don’t know the first thing about dealing with FOSS/GPL most likely) and just watch what happens.

    Too bad Matt and Chris can’t come to a compromise or just haul back and let it lie. Taking it to court might cause more trouble than it’s worth.

    Just my opinion mind you…

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