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Thesis vs WordPress: GPL License Debate

Chris Pearson of DIYThemes and Matt Mullenweg of WordPress are at each others throats over this issue about Chris’ Thesis theme framework for WordPress which is not licensed under the GPL (General Public License).  Thesis is a very popular theme for WordPress, it has over 27,000 users and while Matt claims it’s the only major premium theme to not abide by the GPL, it really isn’t.  Headway themes aren’t licensed under the GPL either.  But the question at hand here is are themes really derivative works of WordPress?  According to a recent post on the WordPress blog they are, but I don’t buy it.

The response by the lawyer (who by the way works at the Software Freedom Law Center) in that post is clearly sharing the viewpoint of Matt and WordPress.  I’m sure any good lawyer with an opposing viewpoint could conduct a strong rebuttal.  You are only hearing one side of the argument, so to simply take that post at face value is silly.

Nonetheless, basically what it boils down to from my understanding (and as I state in the video I’m not a lawyer), in order for it to be a true derivative work it would have to work by itself. Which sounds weird, but let me explain. If Thesis also included a backend based on WordPress code itself and then Chris sold it and didn’t put it under the GPL license, he would have a problem. He would be in violation of copyright infringement.

However, that’s not what he’s doing at all. He’s not using WordPress code within his theme and to prove that you can try running Thesis without WordPress. I know some people are using that logic against Chris and Thesis, but in reality, it may actually be the reason why he isn’t breaking the law.

I provide additional examples in the video and how enhancements and other things aren’t really considered derivative works – that would be silly. I personally think all these premium and professional theme companies who are releasing under the GPL are just scared and don’t want to upset the apple cart. I can guarantee if this went to court and Chris won, they would switch their license away from GPL.  However, with that said, I don’t see this going to court.  Matt has already done some serious damage by offering to cover the costs for people to switch away from Thesis.  Additionally, the #thesiswp hashtag on Twitter (which is mainly meant to be used for support purposes) has been completely flooded with tweets pertaining to the situation with people voicing their different opinions making it difficult for people who need help with Thesis to even be seen.  It seems to me that Matt never had any intention on suing Chris, he’s simply trying to ruin his business by hurting his reputation.  Will it work?  I guess only time will tell.

— Jeff Weisbein

Jeff is the founder & CEO of BestTechie. He has over 10 years of experience working with technology and building businesses. He loves to travel and listen to music.

  • Reed


    Interesting breakdown, other than uninmformed comments I’ve read, you are the first I’ve come across to truly break down the legality of this argument.  I didn’t know thesis could work on its own.  But I am curious, as this debate is new to me, are all other premium plugins and themes breaking the gpl?