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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.

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