As anyone can see from looking through past posts, I almost never blog here. I mostly post on the official WordPress.org blog, or toss out snippets of thought via Twitter. However, my two years of relative silence here — when it comes to the GPL and Thesis — is now at an end. Normally I would write this post and then wait a day and edit it before publishing, but in this case I’m just going to hit Publish. Tomorrow is a another day, and I can clarify anything that needs it then.
Yesterday, I met Chris Pearson, of Thesis theme infamy. How? Why? What? I accepted an invitation to speak at a real estate convention largely for the chance to meet him in a neutral situation (not a WordCamp, etc). I introduced myself in the hall and we went to sit down and talk in a room some speakers were using. As we walked down the hall, he mentioned wanting to get an iPad while in town that day, though supplies were scarce. I offered to call “my guy” at the SF Apple store to ask if he could snag one from stock and hold it for Chris. Even though Chris had previously been a confrontational jerk to most of my co-workers, collaborators and friends, I am just a generally nice person. If I can help, I want to. I made the call.
While pretty much everyone knows that I agree with the argument that themes and plugins count as derivative works and therefore inherit the WordPress license (GPLv2), I’ve really tried to stay out of the mud when it comes to the fighting. Even when people have baited me in the past, said mean things on Twitter, misrepresented/misquoted me or in any other way were just plain uncool, I tried to stay calm, think about the overall impact to the community and make love not war (figuratively speaking). I’ve traveled to meet with WordPress community members to discuss the issues that had them riled to see if we could come to some understanding; in most cases we wound up agreeing and became friends, while in others we at least agreed to disagree and be polite for the good of the community. It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. I was raised to be a nice girl, and even when someone is a total jackass, that training usually sticks. I am basically an overgrown hippie who just wants everyone to get along and be nice, no dogma.
There is a history of antipathy between Thesis/Chris and WordPress/Matt that predates me. I have to admit that when I first started working with the WordPress open source project and I would see their squabbling on Twitter, it reminded me of boys kicking each other in the schoolyard. I began my job with the WordPress redesign for 2.7 in 2008, right around this time of year, though I’ve known Matt and WordPress for much longer. When I started paying more attention to the issue of themes being distributed under proprietary licenses, I was actually pretty astounded. The license text itself seems pretty simple, and has been around for several decades. Each copy of WordPress comes with the license attached, and states that derivative works inherit the GPL license when distributed. I’m not going to get into the details of the license here, that’s freely available all over the web. The thing is, most of the theme developers who were distributing WordPress themes under restrictive licenses either didn’t understand the GPL, or just hadn’t really thought about it too hard, especially those coming from agency or proprietary design/software backgrounds. Those people? Pretty much all went GPL once they realized what was going on. A few others, however, simply don’t think that the license applies to them.
When I met Chris Pearson yesterday, I didn’t expect him to jump up and say, “Yay for GPL and here I come with license compliance!” Based on things some people had told me, I expected the aggressive dude from Twitter to be more of a persona than a person; I thought I’d be talking with an intelligent guy who just had a different point of view. It seemed to start out that way. However, it didn’t last, and many circuitous statements later, it became clear that Chris had no interest in peace in the community nor any respect for the license. It was almost impossible to make sense of his assertions. In one breath he would claim that Thesis had nothing to do with WordPress, then in the next would say that he builds on top of WordPress because of the profit potential (broad user base). In one breath he would say that the GPL wasn’t valid, then in another breath would say that because of the GPL he was allowed to build on WordPress for free. Discussion addressing respect for the developers went nowhere, as did points about license structures, pricing, promotion, community, and more; pretty much they all wound up with Chris saying he didn’t care about the GPL, and that he would continue to license Thesis as he does for as long as he could make money doing so. I had planned to write up this conversation last night, but frankly, had started to wonder if someone had slipped me a roofie, because I found it hard to believe anyone could be so convinced that he was above the law (at one point he asked me where the cops were, if he was breaking the law).
I stated over and over that for WordPress, a lawsuit was an ineffective use of time and money that we could be using to improve our software and grow the community resources that support it, and Chris said something similar with regard to prosecuting his own pirates (he mentioned Malaysians profiting from his work several times). Yet somehow it kept coming back to him saying we should sue him if we were so sure that the GPL was valid.
The hour or more of this type of discussion was exhausting. At one point he raised his voice so loudly that another speaker in the green room (we were at a conference) shushed us. There were a couple of other guys there who tried to back me up (not related to WordPress project team; they were real estate guys), but Chris would have none of it. We parted ways and I was terribly disappointed, not just because I am sick of this whole thing, but because he really proved my pollyanna people-are-inherently-good-and-want-to-do-the-right-thing-if-they-only-knew-what-that-was attitude to be total crap. He showed me that he does not care about the good of the community. He wouldn’t even have a straightforward discussion. His responses to questions had more misdirection than a Penn & Teller act. Ask about the license and he responded with a statement about creating solutions that work or the quality of WordPress code (which he totally dissed, btw). Eventually I asked him why not just move to a platform that was licensed in a way he approved, and he said he was working on it, but that as long as WordPress was as profitable as it is, he wasn’t leaving. He kept claiming it was “just smart business.”
1. It’s smart business to adhere to the license of any software you use. Have we not learned this in this litigious age?
2. It’s professional to answer the actual questions someone asks rather than spouting pre-determined talking points.
What makes me think they are practiced talking points? Today, a brouhaha arose on Twitter under the hashtag #thesiswp. I was trying to avoid it, but eventually it came down to Matt and Chris and they wound up going on a live webcast to debate it. Chris was saying the same things he’d said to me yesterday, verbatim. In one exchange he said iPhone instead of iPod, but otherwise, he repeated almost every single thing he’d said to me the day before. I challenge anyone to listen to the debate and come away thinking Chris Pearson has anyone’s interests at heart other than his own. Frankly, I still don’t want WordPress to sue him. I still think it is a massive waste of time and money that could be put to much better use. I think he should either respect the license or choose a different platform. But if a court case will settle this once and for all, maybe it would help the community in the end; at the very least, it would make it all less confusing.
Oh, and after Chris walked away? “My Apple guy” called to verify that there were no more iPads available in the store, but he’d gotten one out of other stock and was holding it. Too bad Chris didn’t bother to ask me about it before he left.
Yesterday sucked. Today sucked, too. I’m really ready for a day to arrive when all this crap stops taking our attention, and we can focus on documentation, forums, plugin repository enhancements, fixing the media uploader, etc. You know, get back to the business of building WordPress for those 20 million+ WordPress users around the world who owe their publishing freedom to the GPL, and are glad to have it.
** I would have linked to dozens of tweets by various community members to support this narrative, but writing this all out makes me want to go get a drink with friends instead. I’ll come back and add links later.