A few theme designers — including yours truly — received an email from Matt Mullenweg, Automattic’s boss, yesterday. It read (in full and unedited):
Thanks for emailing me about the theme directory. The other day I noticed a ton of bad stuff had snuck in like lots of spammy SEO links, themes whose sites said you couldn’t modify them (which is a violation of the GPL), etc. Exactly the sort of stuff the theme directory was meant to avoid.
There were also a few that violated WP community guidelines, like the domain policy. So since Monday we’ve been clearing stuff out en mass. If you’re kosher with the GPL and don’t claim or promote otherwise on your site and your theme was removed, it was probably a mistake. Give us a week to catch up with the bad stuff and then drop a note.
Thanks guys, and let me know if you have any more questions.
This email came in response to some screams of pain from a few themers who had awoken a couple of days ago to discover that one or more of their themes was no longer listed in the WordPress theme repository.
In the week prior an update to the More Info page there introduced this line:
Themes for sites that support “premium” (non-GPL or compatible) themes will not be approved.
The interpretation of this small but critical sentence has become clear: you not only must make sure to honour the GPL with the theme you submit to the repository, but you had better make sure you do not risk raising the suspicion of Matt (the “gatekeeper” here) that you are using this theme as bait to get people to a site where many/most/all other themes are not GPL (or equivalently) licensed.
I fully agree with Matt’s move. He has done entirely the correct thing. I just wish he’d been faster about it and hadn’t let 200+ “offending” themes get into the repository. I also think he could have communicated before or during the fact, not in the reactive after-the-fact fashion.
But let me fill in a little background here…
A couple of weeks ago I was one of the speakers — along with Matt — at the recent Wordcamp Australia in Sydney. Although it was not my intention, my talk became a “vigorous” discussion about licensing of themes, and the GPL. Now, call me a boyscout, but I take licensing, copyright and my handling of such things as serious matters, with the conviction that what I do with them reflects back on me personally. I believe that how I honour (or fail to honour) the WordPress GPL reflects on my personal integrity; on the substance of my character.
And so to the final 20 minutes or so of my talk in Sydney, which amounted to a fairly messy and inconclusive to-and-fro with Matt and others about the GPL and how themers may or may not be on the right side of it, given one or another business model they choose to adopt.
I returned from Sydney and stewed over things some more and when yesterday I learned of Matt’s deletion of these 200+ themes I immediately got in contact with one of the Automattic crew (that person doesn’t need to be named and the conversation was explicitly off-the-record). Let me first say that if all Matt’s staff are as attentive, knowledgeable and impassioned as that person is, then he’s doing a sterling job of bringing “true believers” onto his team.
In a conversation that went for the better part of half an hour, we discussed the ins and outs of the GPL, of the relationship between WordPress(.org) and Automattic… and Matt, personally. All of which game me a lot of clarity, I think.
Don’t Blame WordPress, Matt or Automattic for Your Lack of Brains or Creativity
I think at the end of the day, the GPL is not in debate. It’s simply not a controversial issue! In my own words:
The GPL (current version, if you must ask) demands that any derivative work of the WordPress codebase must be available for free. It matters not what licensing you apply to code you create that depends on WordPress code for its own functioning; it matters that you understand that it is a derivative work and that you must make it available for free.
This was my issue at Wordcamp. As a conscientious theme developer (working on Vanilla) I want to honour the GPL and yet find a commercially viable, sustainable and profitable way forward for my business. And since I love themes, I’d precisely like to do something profitable in the area of themes, but something which doesn’t contravene the WordPress GPL. That would be stupid for someone like me wanting to build a business that garners respect from others, not least Automattic and the WordPress developer community, for which I have not a little respect.
After my long and fruitful chat with the Automattic staffer yesterday I think I have clarity: the issue is not that the GPL is too restrictive or that Matt is being unreasonable. The issue is that most of us have not thought creatively enough about how to both honour the GPL and make money.
Best to illustrate this is to look at what’s happened with Brian Gardner. Now, I have reason to believe Brian is second-to-none for having made really really really (are you getting the emphasis?!) good money out of his premium themes. Yet, he’s switched to an open-source model, and his flagship Revolution theme is now released under a GPL-ish license (not that there is a license file in the ZIPs you download, but we’ll assume it’s GPL).
Now, you might be flabbergasted that someone with the hugely profitable business that Brian’s got would go and commit commercial suicide. But look a little closer…
What Brian’s done is offer a fully unsupported version of any of the Revolution theme variants for free, while attempting to “guide” site visitors to a supported version of the theme for about USD$100. Brian is banking on the value of support, since he can’t honour the WordPress GPL without offering the theme for free… he just can’t.
The fact that the Revolution theme — the same theme that has up until now made Brian so much money — is now offered for free allows us to make sure fairly reasonable assumptions:
- Matt (and the WordPress community) makes a fairly convincing argument for the GPL and Brian bought it, fully.
- Brian expects to continue to run a profitable business with the new GPL + paid support model.
- Brian values his relationship with WordPress, Automattic and Matt more than retaining the old model.
What Brian needed — along with all other WordPress theme developers — was courage and creativity. The issue is not that the GPL kills “profitable theme development/design” but that we need to think creatively about value.
See, the basis of all commerce is the exchange of value. You buy my stuff because you value it and you pay me with currency, which I value.
So here’s the plain and simple point of it all: your theme files are PHP and they are dependent on the WordPress codebase and have no existence outside of that dependency, so you can’t charge for them. BUT… the creatively-minded entrepreneurs among us will not walk away just because of that. Instead, they will do what smart business-people always do: they will create value somewhere else. In Brian’s case, it is with support. For someone else, it will be theme customization. For someone else, it will be something I haven’t even thought of yet. But it WILL be valuable and it will be worth the money charged, and it WON’T contravene the letter or the spirit of the GPL.
The Most Important Case Study in How to do it Right
There are no prizes for guessing who is the best example of honouring the letter as well as the spirit of the GPL while building a strong commercial business model alongside it: Automattic. Matt and the team have build a range of products and services that never require them to sell WordPress code. Period (“full stop”, as this Aussie would rather say).
Akismet is a service and the plugin bit is free. Gravatar is free. All their plugins are free. Heck… if Automattic had ever screwed with the GPL you’d better believe we’d be up to our necks in controversy. We’d have a massive community revolt… we’d have another Mambo (can’t help chuckling).
But my Theme Was GPL’d and he Pulled it!
If your theme was pulled and yet it was GPL licensed, there are only two options. Either it was a mistake (email Matt), or you were linking from it to a site that sold other themes that do contravene the GPL. If the latter is the case then you are in the awkward place of making the argument that Matt was wrong to defend the spirit of the GPL, beyond just the letter of it. I don’t have a problem with what he did.
The Curious Case of the Child Theme
One of the great developments in WordPress 2.7 is more complete support for child themes. An unintentional development of child themes — I think — is the very real potential for these to be sold without any contravention of the GPL. Now, I know I risk getting some heat for this, but please give this some thought… if child themes need at a minimum to be nothing more than a CSS file and some images, I would put it to you that they do not depend on the WordPress codebase and can therefore be sold. Of course, some child themes will include a functions.php file and then my argument, well… dies, but my goal with the Vanilla theme is to create a child theme that consists of nothing more than a CSS file, a configuration file (which might end up being settings in the CSS file’s comment block), and a bunch of images.
(I did speak to Matt about this specific issue of child themes and the GPL, and while I did not hear any explicit word of approval from him, my recollections are that he understood the reasonable difference the absence of any PHP made to the legal question. And if I speak of Matt as if he’s the judge and jury, it’s moreso that I think he’s got a great mind for all this and a vested interest in getting it right… more than anyone else, to be sure.)
I would welcome your thoughts on child themes and their relationship to the GPL in the comments or in a post of your own, to which I will provide a link when it appears on my radar.
Where This Conversation Now Needs To Head… Value!
As WordPress themers, we can either get all upset about legal interpretation and in fruitless discussions about the relationship between Automattic and WordPress, or we can “get positive”. I’m going with the latter. I want to talk about value. There is no more important a conversation to have.
If the GPL licensing model was not a “valuable” thing for WordPress then we might well all be steamrolling over it, as would Automattic, presumably. But precisely because WordPress is an exemplar open source project and community, we need to see what we’ve presently got as something inherently valuable, and not debase that value by ignoring the GPL when we feel like it. Every premium theme seller should think long and hard about what I’m saying. They can’t have it both ways: they have the WordPress open source community — and the diligent oversight and leadership of Automattic — to thank for the very existence of the codebase, and precisely because it is globally considered so valuable, they have a market for their premium themes. Yet they deny the value of the GPL model (or debase it) by selling their themes! That’s paracitism.
No sooner had I finished speaking at Wordcamp that I jumped into a taxi headed for the airport, which was rather unfortunate, as I would have delighted in spending longer in conversation with Matt, who had started reflecting on the different approaches taken by companies like Automattic — with respect to the open source projects under their “custodianship” — and the relative merits of each. His point was that the approach taken by Automattic with WordPress is not entirely the same as that of Six Apart with Movable Type, nor the same as Red Hat with Fedora, and so on. I am no expert on any of these nuances, but I think we WordPress folk should perhaps pause for a moment to consider the controversies we haven’t had, thanks to the level-headed, astute and egalitarian leadership of Matt and the team.
While I’m praising Automattic, I should also add that the salaries of the lead developers of WordPress — those now employed by Automattic, like Sam, Andy and Andrew — are not (nor can they be) funded by the projects they work on. In the last months Sam’s been building bbPress, Andy’s been fully devoted to BuddyPress and Andrew has been busy on the new 2.7 Admin interface. None of these projects are income-generating. So, Automattic is effectively drawing funds from other places to pay these guys. Can you think of another company that has done the same for the sake of WordPress?
It occurred to me in Sydney that the best example we’ve got, of a company growing profitably alongside WordPress, is Automattic. And yet there is nothing they’re doing that any other company conceivably couldn’t do. It is arguably as risky for them to build a company with any kind of dependency on that software as it is for any other. I’d say, moreso. Think carefully about that before you argue the point. Perhaps more than any other company, Automattic must remain explicitly “obedient” to the GPL, must be seen to NOT be screwing with the code in a self-interested fashion, and so forth. They’re permanently under the microscope.
Did I Mention Value?
Without preserving the integrity of the WordPress GPL licensing model there would soon enough be no WordPress as we know it and discussions around premium themes would be moot. While building a business alongside any open source software is not without its challenges and very real risks, many have done it very well. But it’s about creativity and adding value. We should be watching carefully what comes of Brian Gardner’s new and more “kosher” approach. He will not have gone down that path without much forethought and care. I applaud his recent efforts.
I will be trying hard to make money here somewhere myself. If I can make the “GPL + paid support” model work, then great. Perhaps I can charge for child themes that are just CSS and images. Certainly, Vanilla will be free. I want it to be a shared effort, like WordPress itself… something I’ve not seen with almost any other theme. I’m just a few architectural decisions away from some sort of Vanilla release. Sorry for the delays!