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Lawsuit Averted As WordPress and Thesis Settle Differences Over Themes And The GPL

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

Free (libre) and open source software is one of the best examples of an alternative to restrictive copyright, but even within these communities there can be heated debates about licensing. The WordPress community just witnessed such a debate between the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, and the developer of a popular premium WordPress theme, Chris Pearson, over whether or not themes are subject to the GPL (WordPress’ license). The GPL applies to derivative works of a program—requiring that they, too, must be licensed freely—but Pearson maintained quite publicly that he wasn’t subject to it and could use a proprietary license for his theme. This caused tension between him and Mullenweg, until last week, when Pearson gave in and switched to a split GPL license.

Without getting too bogged down in the legal details and community politics, the dispute is of interest for a couple reasons. Although some open source developers believe the GPL is too restrictive, copyright enforcement is approached in a very different way by free software projects than proprietary software companies or the entertainment industry. Mullenweg had sought a legal opinion from the Software Freedom Law Center over a year ago, and they agreed that the PHP part of a WordPress theme (which interfaces directly with WordPress code) is subject to the GPL, while JavaScript and CSS are not. Pearson disagreed, relying on some pretty novel legal arguments, but those were countered by others in the community. Mullenweg began to put more social and business pressure on Pearson, offering to pay for people to move away from Thesis to premium WordPress themes fully available under the GPL, and speaking publicly about how he felt Thesis was hurting the community by violating the license. Things became pretty heated, and the two squared off in a joint interview, failing to reach any visible consensus. It seemed like a lawsuit from Mullenweg would be the only way to resolve things—something he’d been trying to avoid at all costs—but a week later, the legal conflict was averted as Pearson switched to a split GPL license (i.e. PHP is GPL, as required; proprietary license for the rest). It was messy, but very different from the sue-first-ask-questions-later approach of so many copyright holders, and a lot less messy than a lawsuit could have been. The business and social pressure caused some tension in the short-term, for sure, but ultimately led to a resolution without nearly as much pain or division as a lawsuit within the community might have caused.

This kind of disagreement also highlights the fact that free software licenses (like the GPL) and the free culture licenses they’ve inspired (like some of those offered by Creative Commons) are ultimately hacks on a restrictive copyright system; they’re merely tactics to reverse the negative effects of overly restrictive copyright, but not at all the ideal scenario. For example, we’ve seen concerns over how Creative Commons licenses act as a contractual layer on top of copyright, and non-commercial restrictions can also be a source of tension. Sometimes these disputes help a community to better develop its position on copyright and licensing, but other times, they’re a sign that these licenses are still just a hack on a less than ideal system.

It’ll be interesting to see how Thesis fares in the long-run with a split licensing approach compared to other premium themes that are 100% GPL. Regardless, it’s nice to have a more or less happy ending where the community was able to resolve things without getting the courts involved.

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