WordPress, Thesis, GPL, and premium themes

Almost two years ago I started doing a lot more with WordPress than I had before and I found that buying premium themes would save me time and effort. In short order I bought developers licenses for both Thesis (DIYThemes) and StudioPress. I launched good few sites using themes from both foundries and used Thesis on my own site for some time.

I also promoted using Thesis for people looking for a solid way to build sites. All the while I was unaware of all the issues surrounding Thesis and GPL. Rather, I knew there were issues, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.

Then I started writing Using WordPress.

My editors asked to have Thesis included in the book and I thought it was a great idea. It wasn’t until my technical editor pointed out that it wasn’t really fair to readers to have examples that required people to spend money to follow along with that I started to look into this whole topic more.

The more I read about GPL and WordPress themes the more I felt that themes are derivative works. Look I’m not a lawyer and my opinion is really based on gut feel and the fact that a WordPress theme can’t be used without WordPress. The more I read the more uncomfortable I became with using Thesis on my site.

I switched to Twenty Ten mostly by accident (I thought I was clearing out one site through the command line when in fact I was in my main site), but I’m rather happy that I did. Sometimes simple is better.

Yesterday the debate on GPL, Thesis, and WordPress took at pretty ugly turn. It became very public and very nasty.

And it sickens me.

Here are just a small number of the posts talking about it (there are posts on both sides of the argument):

I think and feel that we owe a lot the hundreds (thousands?) of developers who have contributed to WordPress over the years. It seems to me that it’s a slap in their face to not follow the GPL terms.

I think what bothers me most, besides the fact that I didn’t research this topic a lot more before I started using Thesis, is Chris Pearson’s attitude of “fine, just sue me”. This just seems like the wrong way to decide something.

Myself I’m not going to encourage or recommend using Thesis for any project. I have to look at how I can pull a couple projects off Thesis (luckily there aren’t many). In the meantime Catherine just pointed me to a Thesis to Genesis sale (Genesis is the StudioPress framework. StudioPress themes are are released under GPL): Thesis to Genesis Conversion Sale! | WebDevStudios.com.

Now back to reviewing book chapters…

Update: Mark Jaquith wrote probably the best summation of the themes/GPL/Thesis/WordPress posts I’ve read. Well, well worth your time: Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress « Mark on WordPress


  1. says

    It's a shame. My blog was running on thesis, but earlier today I switched to TwentyTen until I find something else to use. It's wasn't so much the GPL issue that bothered me – I knew Thesis wasn't GPL licensed when I bought it – but Pearson's attitude on that interview just really stank and I thought that this was not a man who I would want to give any more money or exposure to.

  2. says

    You know the old saying any publicity is good publicity. Well after hearing the entire interview and reading Mitch Canters Post http://icio.us/vjkkuf

    I can't necessarily say that is true in this case. What shocked me was the attitude of Chris in this interview.

    The other issue is that Chris Pearson doesn't want to be restricted by the terms of a license, but thinks his users should be.

    And that is just completely a double standard in my mind.

  3. says

    I focused mainly on the moral issue, the intent of the license and the interpretation that WordPress, Drupal and Joomla developers understand… it is not like it is only Matt Mullenweg taking this stance.

    The of course there is the amount of code that has already been highlighted, and I am sure it is just the tip of the iceburg.

    I have a followup post coming

  4. says

    As I said in this post, I switched to Twenty Ten by accident, but I really like the light-weight and clean look. Unfortunately I've learned that using the Google fonts in my child theme causes iPads to crash, but that's another post.

    Regardless, I know this will all fall out in short order. Sadly Chris isn't doing much to help himself. If Brian Gardner can release all his premium themes under GPL, then why can't Chris?

  5. says

    This is one of the main reasons why I've never supported or recommended Thesis (the other one being that it's bloated and doesn't actually work any better than any other theme so it's a solid waste of money). What seems to be overlooked in this whole debackle is some simple logic:

    Remove WordPress and Thesis is nothing.
    Remove Thesis and WordPress is still there.
    Thus Thesis is dependent on WordPress.

    That means Thesis has to accept whatever terms WordPress lays out or perish.

    It's like they say in The Big Lebowski: “This isn't war, it's bowling – there are rules.” Thesis is breaking those rules and has been breaking them for some time. Maybe now finally people will realize that Thesis is not the be-all and end-all of WordPress, it's the other way around.

    Just my little rant.

  6. says

    There may be an argument that themes are not, in principle, derivative works. Maybe. But specifically in the case of Thesis, it's now clear that there is modified GPL WordPress code in it, which is the textbook definition of “derivative work” that the GPL was created for. This may turn into some sort of legal test case, but from the intent of the open-source movement, Thesis should be GPL and that's that.

    Whether a theme that depends on other code to work is therefore derivative of that code is a different question. As Drew noted, that might imply that you could never run any non-GPL code (Oracle, say) on a Linux-based server, which I think most (except perhaps Richard Stallman) would say is going too far. There's at least an argument on that point.

    But given the code in it, Thesis has no argument left.

  7. says

    As much as I really liked Thesis at first, the complexity of trying to do simple things started to get old fast. Then once the GPL issues started to come up, I knew that it just wasn't the right choice.

  8. says

    Yes, I think there should really be two threads of discussion here: One is Thesis and the wholesale copying of core WP code. Two is the issue of themes and GPL. Both will be interesting discussions, but the first is pretty cut and dry now.

  9. Britt Raybould says

    Before reading your post (and then the great one by Mark you pointed to), I was completely ignorant of the Thesis/GPL issue (here's where I admit I'm NOT a pro developer). I run several of my sites on Thesis, more out of habit than anything else. However, based on what I've read during the last day, I don't believe I can ethically continue to use Thesis or recommend it to clients. Some of the arguments made in favor of Thesis' position sound very close to some of the ones I heard justifying plagiarism in college. If you cite sources properly, there's no reason you can't include someone else's work in support of your own. When you choose to claim ownership of something that didn't come from you originally…well, it seems a very difficult position to argue successfully. Combined with how Chris Pearson has chosen to present himself makes one wonder how long he can continue down this path before there's consequences.

  10. says

    Yes, that's the problem with Thesis as it stands right now, many of us didn't realize how bad it was until now. This has put many of us in a professionally precarious position. We put our names to something, in the past, that now a lot of us wouldn't touch.

    Let's also not forget that there are a lot of “premium” themes that are released with a GPL license. We have to make sure this doesn't become a paid vs free debate, but a GPL and licensing debate.

  11. t_virus says

    I downloaded a premium theme with GPL license (i did not buy) . Does that mean i can use it without buying it?  

  12. says

    Interesting, I noticed most other CMS platforms check to make sure projects comply with GNU GPL terms? Kind of why I am switching a few of my sites.

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