WordPress, the GPL, and Thesis

July 16, 2010

WordPress is open source software, licensed under the GPL (as its About page tells us). The question is: does the fact that WordPress is under the GPL mean that WordPress themes must also be under the GPL? This question of WordPress theme licensing has come to a head recently, as what Mitch Canter calls the great Thesis vs. WordPress theme debate.

Thesis is the flagship theme at DIYthemes. It is one of several WordPress themes developed by Chris Pearson. It is not under the GPL, because Chris doesn’t want it to be, and doesn’t think it has to be.

Why should a WordPress theme use the GPL? One way of making the argument is to use the following quote from the GPL FAQ. Combining two modules means connecting them together so that they form a single larger program. If either part is covered by the GPL, the whole combination must also be released under the GPL. A WordPress theme is a module that combines with WordPress core and with plugins to form a single larger program.

That’s the argument advance in a comment on the above-referenced great debate post. The comment is by Dougal Campbell, whose own post on the issue includes a good collection of links. Talking of links, my way in to this discussion was a post by Chris Cameron at RWW. That post focuses rather more on a specific exchange between Chris Pearson and Matt Mullenweg than on the wider issue.

I lean toward the view that WordPress themes (and plugins) are modules that combine with the core code. So they should be under the GPL, and hence free (as in freedom). If that makes a developer uneasy, well, maybe they should have thought of that before developing modules that combine with GPL’d code.

On the other hand, I think that reasonable people can disagree on this issue. So how to resolve it? Through the courts?

I have a few questions about the legal route. First, who has the best standing to bring suit? Would it be the WordPress Foundation (an organization of and from which I’ve heard little since its founding)?

Second, is this particular case too clouded by issues specific to Thesis to provide a good test of the basic question of theme licensing? (I’m thinking of statements that Thesis includes some code lifted from WordPress core.)

Finally, would a lawsuit be a good use of anyone’s resouces? I strongly suspect not.

7 Responses to “WordPress, the GPL, and Thesis”


  1. [...] couple of days ago, I posted on the Thesis licensing controversy, closing with the wish that it didn’t go to court. Well, that wish was granted. I am [...]

  2. bulkzooi Says:

    To answer your first question: I think, only the owner of the code (I guess this is the Foundation because the business is done is his company), upstream providers and the FSF can file a lawsuit.

    I think it’s strange that this GPL-issue is so much discussed. There is a much bigger GPL-issue in the media world (HTPC, NMT, XBMC, Boxee) which doesn’t get any attention at all.
    What’s happening?:
    Boxee.tv is distributing a fork of GPL v2 XBMC Media Center software. They ship this software with a closed source unique executable without license. At the moment, they only offer a downloadable version of their Media Center but very soon they will release Boxee Box (shipped with this software).
    XBMC.org (a community driven Foundation) and Boxee are friends (Boxee donated a substantial amount of money) but there is a third party, Voddler.com, involved who did exactly the same thing. XBMC.org went hard on Voddlers’ copyright infringement but they don’t mind Boxee; to me this is a very strange and disputable attitude. Especially since xbmc.org has many downstream suppliers, which should be protected.
    When your talking about commercializing GPL: Both Boxee and Voddler are financed by Venture Capital. In total around 35 million US-dollar…..


  3. [...] Is it surprising that this particular theme – Cutline – has been retired from WordPress.com? Yes and no. Yes, since Cutline was one of the most popular themes at WordPress.com. No, given the recent controversy involving Cutline designer Chris Pearson. [...]


  4. [...] then, WordPress and the designer of Cutline got into a pissing match over GPL, one that remains, AFAIK, [...]


  5. [...] Hintergrund der Geschichte ist ein Streit zwischen dem Entwickler von Cutline, Chris Pearson, und der WordPress Foundation. [...]


  6. [...] pared down Cutline theme had been changed over to the unattractive Coraline because of some sort of feud with the Cutline designer, Chris Pearson. I am, to say the least, … [...]

  7. The Raven Says:

    [in passing]

    Krawwwww…Cory Doctorow calls these copyfights. Nothing good is served by them.

    I decided several years ago that the GPL has become part of the problem of over-controlling use of copyright, by making unreasonable demands for sharing, rather than unreasonable demands for private ownership.

    Croak!


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