WordPress Themes and Vagueness

Recently there’s been a kerfuffle in the WordPress blogosphere over the fact that WordPress.org suddenly removed 200 themes from the Extend repository, in order to make all themes comply with this apparently new stipulation:

Themes for sites that support “premium” (non-GPL or compatible) themes will not be approved.

Alister Cameron has written a post that’s excellent in describing the issue (Matt Mullenweg, head of WordPress.org and the one who removed the themes, seems to like Cameron’s post too). Here Cameron gets to the heart of the matter:

If your theme was pulled and yet it was GPL licensed, there are only two options. Either it was a mistake (email Matt), or you were linking from it to a site that sold other themes that do contravene the GPL. If the latter is the case then you are in the awkward place of making the argument that Matt was wrong to defend the spirit of the GPL, beyond just the letter of it.

Perhaps unintentionally Cameron highlights the problem with WordPress.org’s actions: the GPL does not really have a spirit. The GPL is a license—a license that makes possible wonderful things, but still just a legal document. When you start trying to defend spirits, you stray from interpretation of a legal document into divination.

What that really means is making judgment calls based on vague or ineffable criteria. WordPress.org can do that because it pays the bills. Legally and perhaps ethically it’s justified in excluding themes that overuse the color blue, if the corporation wants. But in practice, excluding good GPL’d themes because their authors have sites that “support” non-GPL’d stuff will foster ill-will. It will seem just as arbitrary as excluding a too-blue theme because the criteria are just as vague, and that arbitrariness will always seem like capriciousness to those on the receiving end of the stick.

In other words, it’s unclear what constitutes “support.” According to comments on the posts to which I linked above, “support” meant just an ad for a premium theme developer. What about blog posts that promote or otherwise offer aid to premium theme developers—does that taint a site with “support”? No one should have to parse answers to questions like that.

We don’t need more vagueness. One of the main reasons we have more or less precise legal documents and legal systems for their interpretation is that we want to establish confidence in the stability of the system. We won’t invest serious time, money, or other resources when we don’t have confidence about whether our work will be contravened by a subjective judgment call. Subjective judgment calls are fine for our own lives or the businesses that are under our purview. But when it comes to a community, when it means possibly hurting others, there should be greater transparency and specificity regarding the criteria.

So WordPress.org should remove that clause forbidding sites that “support” non-GPL’d stuff, not because as an independent, non-profit organization it doesn’t have the right to do so (it does). WordPress.org should remove that clause because it harms the WordPress community by introducing unnecessary arbitrariness.

Besides, good GPL’d themes—no matter who creates theme—are a benefit to the community. We the community get a free theme, and since we’re adults we’re capable of deciding whether the theme author’s site is one that we think worthy of our attention.

There is a good amount of talent in the WordPress themes business. If the Extend repository becomes hostile to theme authors of quality themes, then the talent will go somewhere else. That hurts non-technical WordPress users, who benefit from a central repository that they know is free from spammy links and back-door code, and home to top-notch themes.


  1. Posted December 14, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink
    Alister Cameron // Blogologist

    A fair call about the spirit vs letter argument, Austin. It’s arguably a straw man.

    I guess I can try to say it in the words of someone else I was reading on this matter (can’t remember who), who said that in the end the GPL has room for interpretation and “nuances” of meaning and the final arbiter is, in this case, Automattic. Of course, if they screw up royally and unrepentantly, they’re going to kill themselves, as a GPL license cannot be revoked… not even by Matt and co.

    So when I say “spirit” I mean less of the spirit of the license and more of the spirit of what the Matt and the WordPress community are trying to protect and promote with the use of the GPL.

    And one final observation: when you read thru the GPL itself, you realise quickly that it is written to protect the freedoms of the acquirer of the code, and is restrictive in most every way on anyone who would attempt to restrict those freedoms. We should be careful to remember that in this discussion, where we risk seeing the GPL as a mechanism to enforce limitations on theme developers… something it was never written to do.

    Moreso, the GPL was written in the days of compiled code, released as one single executable (typically), and here we’re not only talking about uncompiled PHP, but themes which technically don’t include any of the codebase itself. The difficulties of this particular “plugin” scenario are well known, I’m finding out, to the legal brains who’ve spent time scrutinizing the GPL.

    So the discussion continues…!


  2. Posted December 14, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    While I agree that clarity is a good thing, I think there is a good reason to remove free themes that link to resources that support premium themes.

    Irrespective of the licensing issue, the themes that are hosted on WordPress.org should be for the sole benefit of the community. The link restriction is intended to prevent authors using the repository as a promotional tool for other work.

    The community benefits most if the best work is passed on to the community but if premium authors, to continue to make money, need themes that offer features that are not available for free the temptation must be there to use the repository to promote those with more limited versions. If they are permitted to use the community repository to offer limited versions of their themes to promote the premium versions then that is not in the benefit of the community and may even hold it back.

  3. Posted December 14, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    We also make the “arbitrary” decision to not host GPL plugins that encourage splogging, amoung other things. I think that although there are rules there needs to be flexibility for the rules to evolve as bad actors exploit them. (Sponsored themes were GPL and completely allowed under all our existing rules at the time, and practically killed the theme community for users.)

  4. Posted December 14, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
    Austin Matzko

    @Alister: I agree that the GPL issue itself isn’t as straightforward as many seem to think, but that’s an entire topic by itself.

    @Andrew: I don’t see the harm even in the scenario you describe—premium theme developers offering GPL’d themes as an incentive to “upgrade” to paid themes. The community still gets a free theme out of the deal, with no obligation. I think it’s more likely that a developer would produce a quality theme as a way of saying, “look what I can do.” In that case, everybody wins: the users, because they get a quality theme and the developers because they get good publicity. Why is that so bad?

    @Matt: I agree completely with the need to respond flexibly to bad actors. I think what makes this situation different from the ones you mention is that splogging plugins and sponsored themes have inherent problems; here, the objection is not with the theme itself, but with something tangential.

  5. Posted December 16, 2008 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
    that girl again

    Sponsored themes were GPL and completely allowed under all our existing rules at the time, and practically killed the theme community for users

    Actually, most sponsored themes were CC-licenced (whether that’s valid is a whole other endless debate) since nobody’s going to splash money out on links without some attempt to enforce their retention. And, arguably, it was your own sparkling SEO techniques (default blogroll with hot nachos on the side, anyone?) which clued spammers into the value of embedded links in WP themes. You might as well have posted a big neon sign saying ‘this is how to use WordPress as a spam tool’. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour of those who bought or sold footer links, of course, but you can see why some might be puzzled by the extent of your outrage.

    What ‘practically killed the theme community’ was your shutting down the official theme repository for a year in a fit of pique. What’s killing it now is these regular attacks on theme developers; your hiring of prominent designers to produce wp.com-exclusive themes such as Depo Masthead and Albeo (if you’re so keen on GPL and giving stuff back to the community, why aren’t they available to download from wordpress.org? is it that freaking hard to put stuff in a zip file? and why ban the designers from redistributing it themselves? sorry, but that doesn’t sound terribly open-source to me); and the lack of quality control in the repository (if, as you’ve claimed elsewhere, the majority of themes you removed were crappy and rarely downloaded, why on earth were they approved in the first place?)

    You seem, as ever, determined to drive as much talent away from the WP community as possible; which is good for Automattic’s monopoly, I suppose, but doesn’t seem that great from the point of view of the actual users.

  6. Posted December 16, 2008 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m not outraged, I just don’t think WordPress.org should be required to host stuff that is antithetical to its goals and philosophies. You know as well as anyone that every theme on WP.com is available through SVN. I didn’t put them directly into the WP.org theme directory because they link “powered by” and such to .com, not .org, and I didn’t think that was right, and also 99% aren’t ones we authored or sponsored the authorship of.

    Many of the themes removed shouldn’t have been approved in the first place, but still working out the kinks and learning about the moderation process there. We’re just humans doing this, and we often make mistakes.

    I’ve met thousands of WordPress users at WordCamps across the world the past few months, and these decisions are directly driven by conversations about their troubles and frustrations. Supporting Free Software and the ideals of open source aren’t driving away talent, actually historically it’s the source of everything good that has gone into WordPress and its success thus far.

  7. Posted December 17, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I have to admit that the more discussion there is over these themes the more confused I am getting. As I understand it, themes are permitted to be added to the theme directory if they are GPL. Themes are also permitted to have a link back to the developer’s site. But, if the linked site shows any support for commercial themes, whether they are GPL or not, then the theme is not welcome. Am I right so far?
    The problem I have is that the GPL itself permits the sale of GPL code/applications. The 4 freedoms do not include a free price tag. All of the themes that have been removed had a zero price tag but suddenly the theme developer becomes some kind of bad guy (or gal) simply because they also conduct commercial activities.

    On the other hand, a very large number of the plugins in the repository are either cripple-ware or come from sites that sell premium versions or commercial plugins, both GPL and proprietary. Where is the consistency in this?

    Now, I read Matt’s post and the issue gets even cloudier. “The ideals of open source” is a meaningless statement. “Open source” is simply the definition given by the Open Source Initiative to a method of software development. The GPL is nothing more than a copyright license. Yet, it seems from the comments Matt is making around the blogosphere, that he and/or the powers-that-be in the leadership of the WordPress project are saying that everything that hooks into WordPress must be free, as in $0. This was never the intention of the FSF when they wrote the GPL, nor is it part of the open source definition.

    This issue has caused concern and confusion amongst a very large number of people, including WordPress users, developers, and those providing custom services for WordPress. Regardless of how anyone interprets the GPL, the WordPress community needs certainty and a simple, clear statement from the community leaders would help everyone to get onto the same page.

    @Matt – the WordPress.org site is yours and you can allow or ban anything you like. Please just make a definitive statement so everyone knows what your goals and philosophies are, and what the rules are for contributing themes and plugins to the WordPress.org directories. The longer people keep debating the issue, the more divided the community is becoming – and that’s bad for all of us.

  8. Posted December 18, 2008 at 9:44 am | Permalink
    Chip Bennett

    Matt doesn’t know just how bad he’s making himself look here, does he?

    As others have said, Mr. Mullenweg, you absolutely *must* issue a definitive statement regarding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable with respect to wp.org extensions (both plugins and themes). In the process, you need to explain why a link in a theme to the author’s web site is “antithetical to [WordPress] goals and philosophies.”

    And if you are going to go link-policing on contributors’ *personal* web sites, in search of support for eeeeeeeeevil premium/commercial themes, then you’d better not stop there. What if a theme author’s personal web site links to a site that supports/promotes premium themes? What if the theme author’s personal web site links to a site that links to a site that supports/promotes premium themes?

    How many degrees of separation are there between *your* web site, Matt, and sites that support premium themes? And whether that number is one or ten, what is the practical difference between your site, and a properly GPLed theme hosted by wp.org, with a link to the author’s personal web site?

    (Here’s a hint: with respect to the GPL in general, or WordPress’ goals and philosophies specifically, there is *no* difference. To claim otherwise is to disregard completely the very definition and construct of the Internet.)

    By the way, I found this statement entertaining:

    “I didn’t put them directly into the WP.org theme directory because they link “powered by” and such to .com, not .org, and I didn’t think that was right, and also 99% aren’t ones we authored or sponsored the authorship of.”

    Of course, being the GPL proponent that you are, you have ensured that all such themes are properly GPLed, and know that you have every right to change those “powered by” links to .org. That you neither authored nor sponsored the authorship of those themes is irrelevant, since they must be properly GPLed themes – meaning that you are in no way restricted from making those changes, and hosting them in the .org theme repository.

    The whole issue, thus far, is both disappointing and discouraging.

  9. Posted December 19, 2008 at 1:32 am | Permalink
    that girl again

    You know as well as anyone that every theme on WP.com is available through SVN.

    Yes, and SVN is so user-friendly, isn’t it? In practice, those files are only ‘available’ to those geeky enough to a) know the SVN repository exists and b) use it, which I would imagine is a fairly small percentage of wordpress.org users. Most wouldn’t even know what SVN was. Are you going to scrap the download files on wordpress.org and tell everyone to get the software through SVN? Nope, didn’t think so.

    I didn’t put them directly into the WP.org theme directory because they link “powered by” and such to .com, not .org, and I didn’t think that was right

    You are seriously trying to tell us that out of thirty-odd staff members at Automattic, not only has nobody mastered the art of zipping, they also don’t know how to edit a link?

    Automattic benefits from keeping new themes as near to wp.com-exclusive as you can get while still paying lip service to open source. If I can’t obtain my favourite wordpress.com theme for wordpress.org, that discourages me from moving, meaning that you still get revenue from the ads on my blog and any upgrades I may have bought, not to mention pagerank and traffic for wordpress.com. This is pretty sensible: apart from anything else you have a duty to your investors to make the site profitable, and it’s only fair that wordpress.com users should have some perks since their overall choice of themes is relatively limited. You don’t have to be ashamed of it, and you certainly don’t have to make bizarre excuses like ‘the footer links are wrong’ (I’d have gone for the ‘but MU code is totally different and we haven’t had time to make the necessary changes’ line, myself), but you probably should acknowledge that sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile the ideals of open source with commercial reality, and people do end up honouring the letter rather than the spirit.

  10. Posted January 5, 2009 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    I use WordPress almost exclusively in most of my online projects. Over the past 3 years I have looked at hundreds of themes on WP.org and elsewhere. Most of the time clients care much less about the “cost” of the license as it now takes longer to find a great theme than it does to build one.

    In essence finding a “free” theme is only a bonus if the idea is very striking or original and that is less likely to happen to a non-premium theme – I would expect – most of the time due to the sheer amount of work involved.

    If I was a theme developer then offering a premium theme is a very sensible option (for time poor clients) but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be “approved” and /or hosted on wp.org unless there was a transparent quid pro quo.

    I’d be happy if the extend themes section was split so that non-GPL and other and if WP.org wants to charge costs for hosting premium or otherwise non-compliant themes then that still sounds like a good idea.

    Hosting themes at WP.org provides some useful guidelines and standards as a trusted vendor. I always check to see if there is a premium version and I expect most people do. Don’t we all want to save time if we can?

    On a more personal not I recently had the pleasure to meet Matt at a Wordcamp and my impression is that some careful consideration went into this. OTH I would also expect that comment streams like this are more valuable when they offer alternative scenarios. :)

    The single biggest issue with most of the WP themes sites is being able to search them easily and quickly. At present I’m most interested in themes which offer full support for Version 2.7 and that is not even a tag. Searching taxonomy has always been a bother so having guidelines would be very good.

    See http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/about/ where the tags are listed – but it should be.

    Perhaps also the other thing is that compliance testing of themes needs to be performed for a fee by a third party? Again if there is a separate list of themes which I know has been tested / validated to some level that all saves time and I’d be in favour of that too.

  11. Posted January 8, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    As luck would have it I was able to swap an email with WP on the 2.7 idea. (Thanks)

    “We choose to use feature specific tags like ‘threaded-comments’ and ‘sticky-post’ instead of version specific tags because it isn’t clear from the version which features are actually supported.”

    So looking back over under features on the extend/themes/about these two tags are probably best indicators

    # threaded-comments
    # sticky-post

    Now – if only theme developers would look through the full list of tags when they do the load-up…

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