By mid-2010, one theme was still a GPL holdout: Thesis, from DIYThemes. Created by theme designer Chris Pearson and blogger Brian Clark, Thesis was popular as a feature-heavy framework — it gave users many more options than most WordPress themes. Users can customize every element of their website via the user interface. On the original about page, Chris states Thesis’ aim: “I wanted a framework that had it all — killer typography, a dynamically resizable layout, intelligent code, airtight optimization, and tons of flexibility.” Tech blogs featured Thesis and high profile bloggers, including Matt Cutts, Chris Brogan, and Darren Rowse adopted it.
Chris Pearson was well-respected in the community; he’d already developed Cutline and PressRow before moving into the premium theme market with Thesis. A mid-2009 ThemeShaper post recalls Thesis’ influence as “The Pearson Principle”: “Bloggers want powerfully simple design on an equally robust framework.” With themes such as Revolution and Premium News, theme developers were already creating feature-rich themes, and Thesis cemented that approach, ushering in the era of the theme framework [footnote]The term “theme framework” is often used to refer to different things. In some instances, a theme framework is a base, or “starter” theme that a developer can build from. In other cases, it’s a drop-in code library that facilitates development. But it’s also used in marketing to users, when a theme framework is a feature-heavy theme with multiple options.[/footnote]. Chris called this approach “ubiquitous design.” A theme wasn’t simply a website skin, it was a tool to build your website. It took another four years before theme developers stopped packing themes with options and started moving features into plugins.
While theme vendors adopted the GPL, Thesis held out. Discussions between DIYThemes and Automattic went nowhere and relationships fractured. In June 2009, Brian and Toni were in discussions when a blogger’s comment thread was hijacked. A long debate about Thesis and the GPL ensued. Matt urged people to move away from Thesis, saying “if you care about the philosophical underpinnings of WordPress please consider putting your support behind something that isn’t hostile to WordPress’ core freedoms and GPL license.”
In July 2010, the WordPress/Thesis debate reignited after Chris Pearson’s interview on Mixergy. In it, Chris shares Thesis’ revenue figures, putting a conservative estimate at 1.2 million dollars within 16 to 18 months.
Just over a week later, Matt and Chris took to Twitter. Matt was unhappy about Chris flaunting revenue and the GPL — violating WordPress’ license. Cutting remarks ensued until Andrew Warner from Mixergy set up an impromptu, live debate to discuss the issues. The hour-long discussion airs both sides of the argument. Matt argues that Thesis is built on GPL software — WordPress — and must honor the license. Matt suggests that Chris is disrespectful of all WordPress authors and that he’s breaking the law. Chris said adopting the GPL meant giving up his rights and losing piracy protection. He argues that “what I’ve done stands alone outside of WordPress completely,” and that Thesis “does not inherit anything from WordPress.” The argument descends into a rambling discussion of economics, and the conversation ends when Matt threatens to sue Chris if he refuses to comply with the GPL.
Matt, Automattic, and WordPress took public action against Thesis following the interview. Matt offered to buy Thesis users an alternative premium theme, consultants using Thesis were removed from the Code Poet directory of WordPress consultants, and Chris Pearson’s other themes — Cutline and PressRow — were removed from WordPress.com.
Matt wasn’t the only one in the WordPress community to come out swinging against Thesis. Other lead and core developers wrote about their GPL / Thesis stance. Ryan Boren wrote, “where do I stand as one of the primary copyright holders of WordPress? I’d like to see the PHP parts of themes retain the GPL. Aside from preserving the spirit of WordPress, respecting the open source ecosystem in which it thrives, and avoiding questionable legal ground, retaining the GPL is practical.” Mark Jaquith noted that WordPress themes don’t sit on top of, they’re interdependent on WordPress:
…in multiple different places, with multiple interdependencies. This forms a web of shared data structures and code all contained within a shared memory space. If you followed the code execution for Thesis as it jumped between WordPress core code and Thesis-specific code, you’d get a headache, because you’d be jumping back and forth literally hundreds of times.
Even developers who believed themes aren’t derivative of WordPress declared Thesis derivative. Developer Drew Blas wrote a script comparing every line of WordPress and Thesis. His script revealed several instances of Thesis code taken from WordPress. Core developer Andrew Nacin pointed out that Thesis’ own inline documentation declared: “This function is mostly copy pasta from WP (
wp-includes/media.php), but with minor alteration to play more nicely with our styling.”
A former employee of DIYThemes left a comment on Matt’s blog:
check out Thesis’ handling of comments (
thesis/lib/classes/comments.php). Large chunks of it are ripped right from WordPress. I know they are… because I’m the one who did the ripping. Whether I informed Chris of that or not doesn’t matter because I no longer have any of our old chat logs to prove one way or another, but suffice it to say the latest public release of Thesis (and numerous versions before hand) contain obviously GPL code. Whether those portions get rewritten in the impending 3.0 release, I don’t know… but for Chris to claim that he was responsible for and devised all of Thesis at 13:33 or so in the debate… Well, he was lying to you, either intentionally or not.
On July 22, — not even a week after the initial Mixergy interview — Chris Pearson announced that Thesis would be released under a split license. The public furor, compounded by pressure from inside DIYThemes, forced Chris to capitulate. Brian Clark drafted the license, shortly before leaving DIYThemes, citing “completely different opinions about the direction of the development of Thesis, the running of the company, and our relationship with the WordPress community.” When Thesis 2 launched in 2012, it had a new, proprietary license.
The debate around Thesis and the GPL had far-reaching implications for everyone involved. Prominent blogs moved away from Thesis. Brian Gardner’s Genesis theme became a popular choice. Thesis and Chris Pearson became less prominent in the community, focusing instead on cultivating and building a large customer base. The debacle also proved that WordPress will go to court to defend flagrant license abuse. There was, for a while, a relative calm in the community around the GPL. WordPress.org supported commercial theme sellers whose themes were 100% GPL and tolerated those that packaged their themes with two licenses. It would be another four years before the community found itself in another GPL argument on the four freedoms, this time between WordPress and Envato.