WordPress vs. Thesis

Is it legally and/or ethically okay, to build a business based on a GPL licensed software? To those of you unfamiliar with the not-so-uncomplicated details of open and commercial licensing, this question may sound like a question you'd ask a student of media law. But theory turns into virtual reality when we take a closer look a Thesis, a very popular WordPress theme.

Unlike most themes, Thesis isn't available for free. Christ Pearson is selling his template for $87 per personal site, and so he's been racking up sales. Why do people pay for Thesis when there are so many free themes available? This question is a lot easier to answer: Chris thought about what pro customers want and started to offer a flexible, highly configurable theme which caters almost every need of professional publishers and pro-bloggers. But even though his sales figures are skyrocketing, Matt Mullenweg, founder and head of WordPress.com/.org argues that Thesis violates the GPL license – because GPL-software not only is freely available (in source code), but the GPL (Gnu Public Licenses) also states that all products built upon GPL software must also use the same license. In other words: It's illegal to make money on the hard (and free) work of others.

Today mixergy.com invited Chris and Matt for a Skype discussion which covers some very important aspects of software licensing:


In my opinion, Matt is right but Chris is not the bad guy here. I definitely think that programmers should be compensated for their work – after all, if Chris hadn't sold Thesis but given it away freely, he probably couldn't put so many development resources into his flagship product.

The same problem actually applies to many popular plugins I use on this blog: Ajax Edit Comments and PrettyLink are both available as pro version. I happily spend a couple of dollars on plugins that offer great value. (When it comes to software, “great value” in most cases means that it'll help you to save time and work, or in this case blog, more efficiently.) Yet still, the GPL license must not be violated. After all, we all profit enormously from freely available software. And even though I understand Chris' position, he tends to exaggerate: Thesis is a nice theme, but stating that it was the one crucial factor which made commercial webmasters chose WP is just ridiculous: here in Europe, many companies use WordPress, but Thesis is widely unknown.

So how can we solve this conflict? Can vendors of pro plugins / themes change their business model to offering the software for free but offer paid support? The programmers of PrettyLink and Ajax Edit Comments chose a different approach. In both cases, there's free version (available in the WP repository) and a pro-version available on the author's website after payment. Legally, this doesn't count though: no plugin or theme is a stand-alone software: without mothership WordPress, the code is useless – that's what “builds on GPL software” means. Seems like this discussion will keep going on for a while. What's your opinion on paid WordPress themes and plugins?

9 replies
  1. Matt Stigall
    Matt Stigall says:

    I have been trying to educate myself on this topic, so I am not the biggest expert. My interpretation of the situation is that it is NOT illegal to make money on themes/plugins/design/add-ons, but it is illegal to change the licensing of the software that you build to expand the platform.

    In other words, Thesis can still be paid for, but still must be under GPL.

    There are many premium themes out there that apparently follow the GPL licensing. Heck, many of the people involved in the WordPress core develop premium themes and plugins at wpmudev.

    Just wanted to clarify some of the wording in your post. I am an outside observer in this mess, but do purchase premium themes with GPL licensing from WooThemes and Buddydress.

    I hope what will happen is that Chris will discuss with his legal aides, and will come to a settlement with WordPress and you will see his template be changed to GPL.

    My fear, in this world, is that WordPress will sue, causing Thesis to countersue, damaging the WordPress community. This will drag on for years with no resolution.

    • Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer
      Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer says:

      I see… thanks for the clarification! This is definitely a very important difference.

      But isn’t this a contradiction? The GPL states that the software must be “freely available”, but how can that apply to a product one charges money for?

  2. Matt Stigall
    Matt Stigall says:

    I interpret “freely available” to mean that the actual code is freely available. Now if theme developers want to package it with support, add-ons, and other features, then they are allowed to, but the actual code of the themes, plugins, etc. are free.

    I say this being a happy customer of WooThemes, and paying them for access to their great themes. I have also shared the themes with some other colleagues and friends, and build on them to resell as my own work.

    The problem with Thesis is that you have to buy a license for everytime you use it on a site, and that is what violates the GPL the most. It is a USAGE pricing. In other words, you can have the code, but you cannot use it unless you pay for more licenses and that is against the GPL.

    • Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer
      Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer says:

      Thanks for your comment – that definitely makes sense. But on the other hand, this basically makes selling actual GPL code impossible. Because it means that, for example, I could by a Woo theme (which I’ve actually also done a few times in the past), change it a little (or not) and start reselling the theme, again under the GPL license. Afaik there is no solution for this; even if there was a “legal” way to prevent this kind of reselling, it would still be perfectly okay to purchase a Woo theme and start giving it away freely on my site. Am I getting this right or am I missing something?

  3. Kriesi
    Kriesi says:

    I think chris is wrong on the whole subject. He could easily switch Thesis licence to a split licence which was done by other marketplaces such as themeforest before. This is perfectly legal and would prevent people from using one thesis licence multiple times.

    The wordpress and php code of course needs to follow the guidlines of the GPL licence but he can licence images,css and javascript to his likings.

    And since modern themes use quite a heavy ammount of javascriot within their front and backend (I know that, I am developing them as well ;D ) the theme would certainly be unusable without those compomnents.

    The big problem currently is that no one really knows if the GPL really applies to wordpress themes. Core Developers of course say thats the case, but there are quite some arguments against it. for example:


    So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad to carry the whole matter to a court and get a stringent desicion :)

    • Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer
      Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer says:

      You’re right, this topic definitely needs some clarification. And thanks for the link – interesting viewpoint. I believe that your JS/CSS concept might be a “workaround”; but if for example a theme also uses functions of GPL JS scripts? (Like the ones included with WP, eg Scriptaculous) – are the additional JavaScripts then a derivative work of those?

  4. Andreas Ostheimer
    Andreas Ostheimer says:

    I have been using Thesis on a few websites (paying for several licenses) and don’t like what is happening now. As written above the damage to the WP-community can be extensive so I would really like Thesis to change to GPL. They can still make lots of money with this Theme anyway.
    I decided to move away from Thesis as it puts those (for me) unnecessary hooks and filters layer above the already existing ones of WP and makes it actually harder for me to programm things like page templates.
    Thesis is a theme for WP-beginners and it’s actually not that good anymore as the standard WP 3.0 with a handful of plugins and a pro-theme does just the same and lots of things more…


    • Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer
      Ritchie Blogfried Pettauer says:

      Good point – I looked at Thesis a while ago. Same result: too complicated and mostly obsolete by now; the new theme included with WP 3 is killer and really easy to modify (never liked Kubrick: a flood of mostly useless if/thens….)


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