1. kelltic

    :) Loved your rant. Feel better now?

  2. Matt

    The first big flaw in your article is “Automattic in this post refers to statements by Matt Mullenweg” which implies that Automattic (or myself) control WordPress.org unilaterally.

    There is a unambiguous decision on the fact that themes and plugins must be GPL under WordPress’ license, and it’s from the Software Freedom Law Center, the people who have been on the winning side of every GPL case that has ever been brought up in the US. I also discussed it with Richard Stallman at WordCamp San Francisco. It’s also an opinion shared by every major developer of WordPress, the majority of whom do not work for Automattic. Thus, it is unfair to refer to the opinions above as mine or Automattic’s, probably the most accurate way to update your article would be to say “the WordPress core team.”

    The GPL is about user freedom, not developer freedom. It says the users have certain rights with regards the the software and no one, not even the developer, can take them away. When someone claims their plugin or theme is not GPL, they take away user freedom. If this wasn’t a concern to us, we would have chosen something like a MIT or BSD license.

  3. Matt

    If you’re curious about the SFLC:

    “The SFLC has dealt with over a hundred compliance matters since its inception on behalf of various clients, including BusyBox and developers of significant portions of the GNU/Linux operating system. The vast majority of these matters usually end with violators voluntarily coming into compliance. In the rare cases when a company refuses to cooperate in good faith, the SFLC has been forced to take legal action on behalf of its clients to enforce FOSS requirements. Since 2007, the SFLC has sued six companies, including Verizon and Cisco, for selling products with embedded FOSS programs in violation of the GPL.”

  4. Gubatron

    I say let’s fork the shit out of it, and build a multi-license plugin directory where people can make compatible plugins that can be sold.

    People are selling themes left and right, why can’t awesome PHP developers come and make wordpress better.

    There’s plenty of plugins out there that need to be developed, some people like myself probably have the skills to do it but lack the motivation and time for it.

    Why can’t we have the equivalent of an App Store?

    I’m all for GPL, but you can’t force people to write extensions and license them the way you want to. I’ve heard lots of bad stories also on how the wordpress plugin directory is run, and if you have to time to read some of the code of the most popular plugins in there, it seems like the curation process right out sucks, it all seems like a mafia they got going on there.

    Fork, Fork, Fork, Fork.

  5. Alden Torres


    “The GPL is about user freedom…..If this wasn’t a concern to us, we would have chosen something like a MIT or BSD license.”

    This is a null argument since the original b2/cafelog is GPL, you can’t change it.

    If you care so much about the GPL and freedom, maybe you should encourage Brett Smith to write another letter to Apple and remove the WordPress for iPhone from the Apple Store (http://www.fsf.org/news/2010-05-app-store-compliance/).

    “I also discussed it with Richard Stallman…” and you think it’s a good thing? He was a great programmer but today he is very close to very polemical political affiliations (supportive of Hugo Chavez, Advisory Council of TeleSUR).

    At the end, serious innovations and changes does not care about the GPL issue, because they are made in software as services and they are never released for free. How much do you think the Automattic’s profit come from GPL stuff?

  6. Matt

    WordPress extensions cannot run without WordPress, link core WordPress functions and data structures, and are executed as a single stream at runtime. The GPL was created to cover exactly that sort of linking. Just because someone says the opposite, the most comprehensive arguments coming from a Florida real estate attorney, doesn’t mean there is any real dispute. Regardless, the polite thing to do in an ambiguous situation is to respect the intent and opinion of the authors.

    The GPL enables businesses to thrive in a stable environment, as the numerous 100% GPL theme and plugin businesses show. (Which collectively generate tens of millions in revenue a year, and growing fast.) Who knows whether they or their customers care about the GPL or not (is that even relevant?) but they are building their businesses on a strong legal foundation and with the respect and support of the core WP team.

    (By “core team” I mean the several dozen people currently busting their butts to make a powerful, flexible, and stable 3.0 for you, all the while WP is being downloaded over 40k times a day.)

    Automattic, my business, has shown the same, becoming one of the top 10 properties on the web, profitable the whole time, while contributing countless hours to GPL software and releasing all of our improvements from WordPress.com even though we’re not required to under the letter of the GPL, which did not anticipate web services. It’s just the right thing to do.

    I’m probably not going to change your mind if you’ve decided you don’t like the GPL, or that it’s an ambiguous license despite standing strong for 15+ years, but at least recognize that 99% of the businesses out there are 100% in line with the license and doing fantastic. At every WordCamp I meet hundreds of people whose lives and livelihoods have been positively transformed by WordPress, a group we know numbers in the tens of thousands in the United States alone.

    In a market growing this fast, isn’t it common sense to want to be aligned with the platform you’re building on? If not, better to build on something else. If you want a non-GPL platform, I would suggest Habari (Apache), Serendipity (BSD), Movable Type (proprietary license option), or Expression Engine (proprietary). Avoid Drupal or Joomla as they share WordPress’ “opinion” of how extensions should be licensed.

  7. Matt

    “I have no issue with GPL. I have issue when people start to play loose with it.”

    100% agreed. :) I’ve discussed this very issue with the guy who wrote it, the lawyers who defend it, and my fellow developers who choose to license their work under the GPL. The rights and responsibilities of WordPress developers under the GPL are exactly the same as what they are under other projects with similar structures. Nearly every developer I’ve talked to with an invalid license on their theme or plugin did so because they didn’t know any better. (An honest mistake, one we could probably lessen by more resources on WordPress.org, as you recommend.)

    They switch out their invalid license with the GPL, and their business continues on just as before. The only difference is they’re building their prosperity on a solid foundation of decades and billions of dollars of GPL-based open source development, not some fringe interpretation that seems to occur only along the edges of the WP world. (I can name two, out of well over a hundred substantial businesses and products, so let’s call it 2-3%.) They can focus on things that really matter, like creating solutions that work for their customers and users.

    I have lots of opinions about everything, including how to run a business. (Though that is informed by my relatively short experience.) However one of the freedoms of the GPL is that people can run the code, and their business, in any way they like. That freedom could be taken away, however, by proprietary extensions.

    What if your theme had a license that said you couldn’t criticize the author? (Don’t laugh, there was a CMS that had such a clause in their license.) Now it’s not just your theoretical software freedom, but your actual freedom of speech being taken away, and there’s nothing you can do about it except abandon the theme.

    WordPress protects its users from this by its own license, the GNU Public License (GPL), that says extension developers can’t spoil WordPress with restrictions for their own personal gain at the expense of the community and user freedom. It would be a horrible tragedy of the commons we’ve created together over the past seven years, if such protection wasn’t in place.

    It’s a Bill of Rights for WordPress users.

  8. Matt

    By the way, PluginBuddy, along with the rest of iThemes endeavours, is completely awesome and in line with the GPL. They’re a great example of one of the many businesses that doesn’t think they need to break a license to make a buck. iThemes is listed on the commercial theme directory on WordPress.org, and has been from day one.

  9. Matt

    I’ve been talking about the GPL, I think you’re talking about the website policies on WordPress.org-the-website. For the record, WP places *no* additional restrictions on top of the GPL. The license is the license. There’s no spirit. There was confusion around extensions, but that’s been cleared up by us and the SFLC.

    There are a small, small handful of products left that violate WordPress’ license, which is found morally reprehensible by the core team in the same way any intellectual property abuse is. Let’s say what you found morally reprehensible was taking ice cream from kids. Let’s say you were sending significant amounts of traffic to websites that were sponsored by child-ice-cream-stealing, or contained prominent ads on “how to steal ice cream.” You would reconsider sending your audience to such an odious place.

    The third issue you raise, around wpmu.org, has nothing to do with the GPL or valuable functionality but with significant marketplace confusion being created by borrowed designs and predatory trademark infringing domain-name acquisition, use, and SE optimization aimed toward sites like wordpressmu.org. If you put yourself in the shoes of a novice user, it’s very confusing, and one of the reasons we retired the MU moniker.

    If you want fewer WTF moments, change the places you hang out. If you judged by a few Twitter accounts, or particularly drama-filled blogs or forums, you’d think the entire project was on the verge of collapse. Once you get outside of the inside baseball stuff and into the real world, like at a WordCamp, it’s amazing and refreshing to see what the real WP community is like. You’ll never meet a more supportive or generous group anywhere.

  10. Rush

    Awesome read.

  11. Gubatron

    So I guess it’s just a matter of the likes of PluginBuddy to streamline the plugin installation and purchase process by creating a GPL Plugin :)

    Basically, you go to a PluginBuddy like site, get their plugin, and then you can browse all the non-free plugins inside your wordpress.

    If only I had the time.

    And I’m all for GPL, but share the cake baby. Automattic is profitable, super top hot 10 property in great part because of that community that supports you. Why not make it 1000 times more profitable by opening up to the idea of allowing also paid-for plugins?

    Don’t get too cocky on your success, and look to the future, Google will be doing the same on Chrome with their Web App Store, you are in an amazing position to become hugely profitable, if you don’t take that chance you’re not as bright as you think.

  12. Gubatron

    I find this line of thinking a little bit weird:

    “WordPress extensions cannot run without WordPress, link core WordPress functions and data structures, and are executed as a single stream at runtime. The GPL was created to cover exactly that sort of linking.”

    It this was true, then every piece of code that runs on the Linux kernel should be GPLd.

    Say you needed to use a socket struct in your C code…

    #include // <– GPL 2 code from kernel
    struct sock* mySockPtr;

    eventually your program will link down to sock.h, it won't be able to open a socket, hell, it won't run without the linux kernel, therefore it must be GPL :)

  13. Matt

    Gubatron, with regards to the kernel, fortunately they’ve thought of that. Kernel modules (like WP extensions) are considered to fall under the GPL, but the COPYING file includes a specific note on userspace programs: “NOTE! This copyright does *not* cover user programs that use kernel services by normal system calls – this is merely considered normal use of the kernel, and does *not* fall under the heading of “derived work”.”

    In a similar way WordPress doesn’t consider programs using the XML-RPC, Atom, RSS, or other HTTP-based APIs to fall under the GPL. Someone could write a theme that didn’t use any WordPress functions, just parsed public RSS feeds, and I wouldn’t consider that to be under the GPL. There are some other technicalities, such as the include direction, but that’s the gist.

    I’m not sure what you mean by share the cake — I can’t think of any cake more delicious than the right to use all of the GPL code we release or contribute to for any purpose, including commercial. The WordPress ecosystem collectively makes 25-50x Automattic’s revenue. (Just because we contribute the most back, doesn’t mean we make the most.) That’s a direct result of how open the commercial community, of which Automattic is a part, has remained.

  14. Matt

    Rarst, I know that in day-to-day life it’s unusual for a commercial entity to have a mission besides just profit, but it does happen! Spend some time talking to any Automattician and you’ll see that. Also, your theory only works if this was a grand conspiracy promoted by Automattic people to dupe everyone into releasing things for free and taking advantage of that. It breaks down because that hasn’t happened, we’ve produced and contributed back enormous amounts of code and time, and the reading of the GPL you disagree with is the consensus amoung many independent organizations, including dozens of individual contributors and the SFLC.

  15. JeeMan

    Interesting read, but man, this is way over my head!

  16. Matt

    I’ve tried my best in this conversation, but I feel like you’ve already made up your mind and you don’t accept anything I say at face value without imagining a bad intention behind it. i hope that you continue to enjoy the benefits of using WordPress, even if you disagree with the people who built it.

  17. Alden Torres


    I personally appreciate your time writing in this post. It doesn’t matter if the result is nothing more than good comments. It’s always good to see you inside the community.

  18. Gubatron

    (It’s awesome that you’re actually reading this btw, thanks for the time spent)

    What do I mean by “Sharing the Cake”? I think you could do a hell of a lot better than Steve Jobs himself on running a Plugin Store for wordpress. You have the Open vision, and you have demonstrated to truly know the technicalities and gray areas of the GPL, I will in no way win an argument on those areas with you.

    I think that there are some interesting ideas that can work ON TOP of WordPress via a GPL plugin. Let’s say I built an RPG platform to engage users into participating, rating, the content of a WordPress based website. I could build my entire RPG platform completely independent of wordpress and have it talk to WordPress using a GPL plugin, I’d like to sell my RPG platform to 10s of thousands of blogs out there, wouldn’t it be cool if we shared the cake?

    By me having a WordPress Centric experience to sell my RPG Platform + WordPress RPG Plugin THROUGH the Official Plugin Directory I get plenty of exposure, Automattic gets a % of each sale. If it’s a service, Automattic gets a % on every recurrying payment.

    As of now, Automattic is doing fine, you managed to create a great business model around it but you’re eating all the cake. Sure, we get GPL code, but why not consider the opportunity. Themes are making a killer, there’s tons of Web entrepreneurs who would jump on a WordPress Market in an instant, there’s so much fabric to cut on this idea, think micropayments, virtual goods that could be shared across wordpress instances.

    I think WP can be a lot more while still keeping it’s GPL flavor, I think there should work arounds and you’ll be flooded with business.

  19. shawn sandy

    “WordPress extensions does not include or bundle WordPress code, the only thing from WP they include are function names.”

    I think it is pointless to discuss a GPL or license if you fail to recognize the validity of the license or the spirit of the thing or even know that a function is more than a name.

    Developers who are against the GPL simply want to have their cake and eat it to, you build on code that was made free to you and use it to make money ignore the license and then want others to respect yours!!!!

    Whats even worse is that these developers can find creative ways to work around the GPL but most do not want to do the work with a couple lines of code you could write a theme that runs atop the theme structure, it is basic, but I doubt some of them even have the skill to do it.

  20. shawn sandy

    I am sure where I was impolite, but I will apologize for sharing my view and having a strong difference of opinion, after all it is your blog and I have respect your wishes!!!

  21. shawn sandy

    ***I am sure I was not impolite, but I will apologize for sharing my view and having a strong difference of opinion, after all it is your blog and I have respect your wishes!

  22. shawn sandy

    “In that one comment you claimed other side of debate is unable to understand terms of GPL, sucks at programming and is out to maliciously rip off WordPress project…..”

    Your interpretation I cannot change that…

    As it is the web today is filled with way too much noise and clutter, so when I say anything I try to be as direct and factual as possible not politically correct.

    This is not the first time I have engaged you in this conversation and the like I said the GPL is clear on this matter and that is a fact!

    Another fact is that when you add a function to a theme it executes pieces WP code and what you get is the results of the code… Without the WP code and the php compiler all I would be seeing is “”. It is the GPL that allows you to do this if it did not you would not be able to reuse a single line of that code for anything. It is the way code works, suggesting otherwise seems either irresponsible or uninformed.

    “freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs….”

    All of the themes I write for WP use a simple MVC structure and I do this for two reasons 1. Is the WordPress theme structure of including files is archaic, and does not allow you to reuse code.

    2. I can truly separate my design and code from the WordPress core and in fact reuse it anywhere. It does not take much to do this.

    I have looked at a lot of these themes they contain a lot of sloppy code that is not fit for redistribution or resale for that matter.

    As for frameworks most of them contain WP function wrapped in more functions creating more bloat than innovation IMHO.

    My biggest issue with the GPL is that it seems to promote free as beer more than it does Freedom to share but that is a whole other issue.

    That said you can choose to delete this post if you wish, I would expect and have no problem with it.

  23. shawn sandy

    This is why I have to sound like I talk down, I get my facts before I make a statement so I am confident when I say something or I say I do not Know…

    It does not matter if WP is a derivative of PHP under the php licence it does not make a difference.

    ” GPL enforces many restrictions on what can and cannot be done with the licensed code. The PHP developers decided to release PHP under a much more loose license (Apache-style), to help PHP become as popular as possible.” http://www.php.net/license/index.php#faq-lic

    I am not familiar with the linux licence so I cannot answer that questions sorry.

    Actually the GPL is quite clear on what it considers a derivative!

    The WP code is simple for most part, I am not sure what you mean by hardly a marvel???

  24. shawn sandy

    “A derivative is something which has been developed or obtained from something else” so technically it is!

    Now thats out of the way read the GPL to understand how derivatives should be handled.

    Have you ever really explored WP code-base, do you understand why backwards compatibility is an issue, or it exists!

    I can assure that sloppy codes by theme and plugin devs have nothing to do with WordPress!

  25. shawn sandy

    Are you still trying to present a valid argument against the GPL here… cause it is getting weaker with every response.

    A blank text file… You can code without seeing any WordPress code??? I am not particularly interested why???

    Devs are the ones that start with “blank txt files” and fill it with lousy code poor structure and redundant “functions” AKA frameworks…

    I am sorry but how do you expect me to take your argument seriously!

  26. Ishan

    This is quite an interesting series of comments. 2 sides having monologue; without giving credence to any facts presented by other side. I am not on either side, and have no take on the issue, but this is neither a discussion nor a debate; just 2 sides shouting out loud with their ears closed :)

  27. Bryan Hadaway

    I find myself on the fence. I love WordPress, I use WordPress and I profit from WordPress. But, I have absolutely felt vilified with a bit of “elitist behavior towards me where opinion was shined on as fact” subtlety from mods, theme reviewers and WP programmers/developers that share a certain view.

    It doesn’t anger me to the point of the same passion you have about it, but I get it and it’s frustrating, convoluted and certainly not ideal. I see both sides. I’ve contributed one theme and one plugin officially to WordPress totally for free, for fun, interest, experience and perhaps a little recognition/backlink love in return (for anyone to deny that would be a lie).

    However, I recently ventured into premium theme territory that of course pushed me to do my research into GPL. When all I was doing was contributing for free it was easy going, but now that I’ve gone to premium there is definitely this weight of how dare I try and make money, the commercial evil has consumed me.

    I don’t get this from the top, but from the people in the middle that perhaps haven’t been given a clear enough handbook into how they should treat WordPress’ users, designers, developers or people in general. When programmers wouldn’t work with me because my project was premium or my ideas of the project didn’t fit this WordPress’ unwritten ethical codes guideline I definitely felt this “I’m a bad guy.” attitude. Until I read this article, I thought I was the only one asking myself “What the hell, I’m a professional. I give a lot of stuff away for free, but I can’t work hard on something and then make a profit on it too?”

    And then I read this and it really put things into perspective:


    “Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU Project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible — just enough to cover the cost. This is a misunderstanding.

    Actually, we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If this seems surprising to you, please read on.”

    That’s the official gnu.org stance on the issue and seemingly the way WordPress also feels considering they have a commercial showcase of theme on their site itself.

    So, I don’t think Matt is to blame or any other conglomerate of higher ups. I get the feeling that all the unpaid people that help out the WordPress project (the people who really run things) have sort of created their own idealism on how things should be. Here’s an analogy for you…

    WordPress is like an island. Matt and the core team are sort of like guards that keep just enough pressure and explain just enough to appease the king (the law) and keep the people in order. And all the mods, theme reviewers, developers, designers, users, customers etc (“the community”) are all the people dropped onto this island.

    They’re told just enough to stay in compliance and be allowed to stay on the island. But, for all pertinent info, nuances and in-between stuff they have to figure out for themselves. And without enough clarity from the guards they form all sorts of varying opinions and break off into groups. They know enough to appease the guards and the king, but they never learned how to all get along.

    The bottom line is that wherever there are people, there’s trouble. Whether that be an island, a city or even an online community it is political, I can’t see how that could be argued. You make a very valid point.

    Ironically, though I’m made to feel like a bad guy for earning a living, my ideals of how to give away for free or sale digital goods is way less restricting than even that of the GPL. All the code I write on my blog or software, website templates etc that I create, I don’t even want to restrict how people can or can’t use it at all, adding no license most of the time. But, because we live in such a litigious society people are scared. So I have to say that it’s public domain and they can safely use whatever it is, however they want.

    My ideal would be no licenses at all. But, to play with WordPress is not a mutual friendship. WordPress is that one kid you played with growing up (you know the one). You benefit from one another’s company enough to still be their friend, but it’s not mutual. WordPress is the dominant friend. If you don’t agree with them or do the things they want to do they won’t play with you anymore, period.

    So, although it’s interesting to discuss these issues and our opinions, they’re just that and no one cares and nothing is going to change.

    Like I said, I’m on the fence, neither left or right. So my opinions are probably less popular than any.

    Thanks, Bryan

  28. Bryan Hadaway

    @Rarst – All the same, as a newcomer to premium theming, doing my GPL research lead me to your article. While being two years old, still holds true on many points as I experience them for the first time.

    Many of those points being of non-GPL origin and more of this fear of breaking compliance undertone that is ever present in the “company”.

    Right now I’m pondering GPLv2 vs GPLv3.

    Thanks, Bryan

3 pingbacks

  1. [...] data structures, and are executed as a single stream at runtime. " (see Rarst post comments http://www.rarst.net/thoughts/wordpress-gpl/) Additionally, I personally care about the issue because I want to release my code with a more [...]

  2. [...] The WordPress community is pretty divided on the subject and really all over the might. I read an interesting article that shares some of my same views on the issue.My thoughts on what was said and GPL are as [...]

  3. [...] Or we could be watching political drama for dramas sake, that has been going on for a long time, here’s an old blog post on the subject from the venerable Rarst: [...]

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