My Opinion WordPress

Who owns WordPress? or How to Make Money in a GPL Universe.

In the last few days a war has been raging on the internet over WordPress and its GPL license. It is not the first time this issue has come to the forefront, nor will it be the last. And in all likelihood, when the whole thing blows over there will be casualties.

If you want to get a glimpse of what has happened and how it is progressing, the good people over at have been covering the story very well from both sides. I urge you to read through the comments as well as the articles themselves.

Rather than summarize the events thus far unfolded I will ask some questions and propose some answers surrounding the underlying issues on which this battle is founded:

The first: Who owns WordPress? and by by inference Who controls WordPress? The second: How do you make money in a GPL universe?

Who owns WordPress?

It’s a valid question and an important one to know the answer to. If we are talking strictly about the copyright to WordPress the answer can be found in the licence that ships with the application in the file called “license.txt” found in the root folder. The first two lines read as follows:

WordPress – Web publishing software

Copyright 2011 by the contributors

In other words WordPress’ copyright is held by all the people who have contributed to it. There is a discussion in here about who the word “contributors” refers to, whether it is restricted to those that have identifiable code or graphic assets in WordPress or if it also includes those that have had input on its development, but that is a topic for another day. What is interesting is that unlike many other Open Source projects, no single person or corporation holds the copyright apart from the original b2 code for which Michel Valdrighi holds the copyright. Instead each contributor’s copyright is upheld. That in turn means the copyright to WordPress is held by thousands of individuals.

This will come into play later.

When you continue reading WordPress’ license you learn that the application is released under the General Public License (or GPL) version 2 “or any later version”[1]. The GPL is the licence under which the copyright holders lets you use the software. And it is the GPL that makes WordPress free. The GPL was created to protect Open Source software from being patented and made proprietary by individuals or corporations. At its heart lies a simple principle, paraphrased (by me) for brevity (for a full understanding I urge you to read the GPL and its preamble.):

You have the freedom to obtain the free software, you have the freedom to distribute copies of the free software, (and charge for this service if you wish), you have the freedom to change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs, and anything you build based on software released under this license automatically inherits this license.

If WordPress was not released under the GPL we would not be where we are today. It’s openness, freeness, and collaborativeness are all a direct result of its license. And for that we have to thank its originators.

What then is the answer to the question “Who owns WordPress?” The copyright is held by those that have contributed to WordPress, and because of the GPL, you are granted a license by the copyright holders to own, copy, distribute, change, and use the application in any way you want as long as you adhere to the GPL.

But then who calls the shots?

This begs an obvious question: If WordPress is not owned outright by any one entity or even a definable group of entities, and anyone can get a copy, modify it and add to it any way they want, and pretty much treat it as their own, who calls the shots? The answer: The contributors. And chief amongst them Matt Mullenweg. Matt is by an large the originator of WordPress and the driving force behind the application, and he is also one of the chief contributors to its code. Around Matt sit several concentric rings of developers, separated by their level of contribution. The first ring containing the lead developers is heavily populated by employees in Matt’s company Automattic and/or appointees of the WordPress Foundation[2] which holds the WordPress name and logo trademarks and other entities controlled by Matt [4]. Though it is unclear what role exactly the WordPress Foundation plays, it is hard to argue it has no influence[5]. Next sit more developers and around them even more developers. These are the people that by committee call the shots through a democratic-ish process (For an inside look at the process, see Andrew Nacin’s comment below). Remember how I said “the copyright to WordPress is held by thousands of individuals”? This is the result.

What’s cool about this is that you can be part of the decision making and application building process. And if you’re good, you might end up at the very top of the pyramid. What’s disturbing is that because of this structure you can easily get infighting, clique building, branching, and there is even room for of something resembling a coup or hostile takeover. Think politics and you’ll see what I mean.

At present the evolution of WordPress is very much influenced by Automattic and Matt himself, and there is no reason to think this will change any time soon. As the owner and operator of Automattic has a vested interest in WordPress, and by investing heavily in contributions to the core of the application the company is in essence controlling its evolution and future development.

Conflicting Interests

This brings us to the aforementioned battle that has been raging this week: On the outside it is a battle over interpretation of the GPL and the consequences of a breach of the license. But underneath there is much unspoken questioning over who controls the WordPress universe.

Matt has taken a hard stance on the GPL and is through the WordPress Foundation striking down hard on those that are in breach of it. The rules of the Foundation clearly state that you cannot contribute to WordPress and associated entities like WordCamp in any meaningful way if you are in breach of the Trademark policies or the GPL, and when someone is found in breach, they are promptly locked out. But the interpretation of what exactly constitutes a ‘breach of the GPL’ can be debated, and while Matt and the Foundation land squarely on one side, there are many who would have preferred to see a more moderate approach.

Had the power structure of WordPress been clearly defined with Matt at the top and the Foundation as second in command, this would not be an issue. But because of the distributed nature of the ownership of WordPress, that is simply not the case and it is only by the goodwill of the community that extreme action of the sort executed this week can be taken. And the result of extreme action, like in any democratic entity, is dissent and murmurs of fractioning, departures and takeovers.

Scary thought, isn’t it. I’m going to leave that line of reasoning for you to complete.

How to make money in a GPL universe

Let me preface this with the standard preamble: The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual company, person or event. Now consider an example:

A theme foundry is selling Premium WordPress themes with a split license thereby restricting the redistribution of sold themes. This is done so that once a theme is sold, the purchaser can’t simply share the theme with the world robbing the originator of potential future profits.  The WordPress Foundation finds that in their interpretation this is either a breach of the GPL or a breach of the additional restrictions and[3] decides that theme foundry and its contributors are cut off from contributions to community events. The foundry responds by saying they can’t continue doing business if they adhere to the most strict interpretation of the GPL. A war (of words) breaks out.

This situation begs a question everyone who works with WordPress or any other open source and/or GPL software needs to ask themselves: How do you make money in a GPL universe? If you can’t prevent the redistribution, alteration, and building upon your code or designs, how do you protect the value of your creation?

Let me give you my answer and then you can draw your own conclusions.

First off, let’s look at the GPL itself to see how you can create a work related to WordPress without at the same time inheriting its licence. Part 2, paragraph 5:

If identifiable sections of that work are not derived from the Program, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works.

In other words if your theme or plugin has segments of code that does not in any way use components of WordPress itself (ie no WordPress functions or references to elements within WordPress) then you can distribute these segments under a separate license if they are distributed separately. The license continues:

But when you distribute the same sections as part of a whole which is a work based on the Program, the distribution of the whole must be on the terms of this License, whose permissions for other licensees extend to the entire whole, and thus to each and every part regardless of who wrote it.

So if you package your proprietary non-WordPress referential or derivative code along with code that does derive or refer to WordPress (ie a piece of code that uses a WordPress function), the entire package, including your proprietary code, inherits the GPL license in perpetuity. A license inheritance by association if you will.

The reason for this is explained in the next paragraph:

Thus, it is not the intent of this section to claim rights or contest your rights to work written entirely by you; rather, the intent is to exercise the right to control the distribution of derivative or collective works based on the Program.

The way I interpret this (keep in mind I’m not a lawyer) you can’t really build a theme or plugin for WordPress without that theme or plugin inheriting the GPL unless you physically split the GPL and non-GPL code into separate packages and then adhere separate licenses to each package. As a result once you release a theme or plugin into the wild you effectively lose control. You can sell it, but you can’t control what the buyer does with it.

This is fundamentally different from general commerce and normal software licenses. And when you try to apply general commerce principles to GPL products, things get messed up in a hurry. The whole revenue model and philosophy of cost-per-item simply doesn’t work under GPL because the product itself is free. In place of the product being the commodity, it is the service that is sold. This is clearly stipulated in the GPL preamble:

(…) you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish) (…)

This is why you can charge whatever you want to install WordPress for a client or build themes or plugins for a client. Because you are selling the service, not the product. It is a fundamental shift in reasoning, and it requires a fundamental shift in the way many people do business. It’s not impossible – in fact it can be extremely profitable – but it is different than how it is done now.

Updates and changes.

To keep this article as accurate and up-to-date as possible I am making changes whenever unclarities are pointed out that can be more precisely explained. Below is a list of those changes:

See comments below for further discussion.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. 28.01.2013: Added “or any later version” to the GPLv2 reference.
  2. 28.01.2013: Changed “employees of the WordPress Foundation” to “appointees of the WordPress Foundation”.
  3. 01.02.2013: Added “and other entities controlled by Matt” to further specify. See Andrew Nacin’s comment below for details.
  4. 01.02.2013: Added “Though it is unclear what role exactly the WordPress Foundation plays, it is hard to argue it has no influence” for clarification.
  5. 28.01.2013: Changed “The powers that be sees this as a breach of the GPL license and” to “The WordPress Foundation finds that in their interpretation this is either a breach of the GPL or a breach of the additional restrictions”.