Following the January-February 2013 WordPress theme licensing debacle, Tung Do, the man behind DevPress, wrote a blog post calling for a new WordPress community space

to champion the non-commercial, collaborative ethos that defined WordPress in its early years as a simple blogging platform. I thought this was an interesting proposition and one worth thinking about in a little more detail. Before I get into that, let me summarize the events in the licensing spat for those who may have missed it. If you want to go straight to the discussion of WordPress community then you can jump to it here.

The backstory

Jan 13 2013
Jake Caputo, web designer and prominent author wrote a post on his blog titled “Automatically Blackballed.” In the post, he outlined the reasons behind Automattic’s decision to restrict him from speaking and volunteering at WordCamp events. The problem centered around the ThemeForest license. The WordPress Foundation encourages theme authors to “give their users the same freedoms that WordPress itself provides” and furthermore “100% GPL or compatible is required for promotion at WordCamps when WordPress-derivative works are involved, the same guidelines we follow on” The only license available at ThemeForest (which is run by Envato) at that time, was a “split license,” which asserts that “the PHP in our themes is covered under the GPL, but the images, CSS, and JavaScript are not.” Caputo was, as he put it, caught in the middle of “a war between giants.”

Jan 23 2013
Collis Ta’eed, the top dog at Envato, responded to Jake’s dilemma in a post published on WPDaily titled “A response: ThemeForest, Authors and WordCamps.” He outlined Envato’s position vis-a-vis the right to maintain the split license, assuring readers that Envato has “a license that is both respectful and 100% GPL compliant, while protecting the rights and freedoms of creators.” Ta’eed was quite insistent on the matter of “rights and freedoms” and stated in no uncertain terms Envato’s position as follows: “At the end of the day our marketplaces sell licenses to buyers to use the work created by our community of authors. The very thing we sell are the set of rights and permissions that buyers have [my empahses].”

Jan 23 2013
Ta’eed’s post sparked a flurry of comments, among which were contributions by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg. One of Mullenweg’s main concerns was that Envato should allow its authors the freedom to choose between a 100% GPL distribution license and Envato’s split license: “Why not allow authors who want to the ability to license their themes as 100% GPL? Give people the choice, they deserve it” (source). Moreover, in a separate comment, he speculated on the Envato rationale behind maintaining the split license, attributing it in part to a way of protecting business interests:

Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of developers, designers, artists, and businesses freely choose to license their work under the GPL, in the WordPress community and elsewhere. It’s the most popular open source software license by far. It’s not something they [Envato] have to protect you against. Envato says you can’t [opt for it] if you want access to their market. Perhaps this is because they think it would mess up the heavy incentives they put in place to list things exclusively with them to prevent new marketplaces from gaining traction — I don’t know. I can’t think of any other commercial reason for them to outright block authors from choosing the GPL for their work, because there are numerous examples of very successful 100% products and businesses.

The latter comment triggered the age-old debate on the ethical, political and economic merits/demerits of open vs closed software and was summed up rather succinctly in a comment by Morten Rand-Hendriksen who runs the Design is Philosophy blog when he writes:

Someone else said it already but I’ll repeat it: GPL, Open Source, and general coding socialism (because at the root that’s pretty much what this is all about) doesn’t immediately gel with hard-nosed capitalism and profiteering. That however does not in any way mean earning a healthy salary providing 100% GPL open source content is impossible. Far from it. What it does mean is that conventional non-GPL business strategies are not going to work or at least are going to be hard to implement without stepping into some pretty choppy waters.

Jan 29 2013
Ta’eed followed up the discussion with another post on WPDaily, this time announcing news of a survey that Envato was planning to conduct with its WordPress author and buyer community over at ThemeForest. The idea was to give the community the chance to respond the idea of revising licensing on themes and plugins at ThemeForest to allow for both the split and 100% GPL licenses. Ta’eed vowed to share the survey results with the broader WordPress community (see below). Ta’eed also made use of the WPDaily post to challenge Mullenweg and Automattic on its own commerically vested interests in the WordPress licensing issue, stating the following:

It’s great that the company is doing well, and fantastic that it’s doing so in the open source space. However the large overlap with the WordPress Foundation makes its very difficult to see where Automattic ends and the Foundation begins. In particular, it’s very hard when receiving guidance relating to how we conduct business at ThemeForest, to have any clarity on who is giving that guidance.

Matt Mullenweg responded to this challenge with the following comment: “To clarify what may be your confusion — the rules around only promoting things that are 100% GPL on and at WordCamps come from, not Automattic, and they’ve been part of the community there for many years now. It’s also a stance I personally believe and advocate. Automattic, alongside countless other organizations from Microsoft to Adobe, StudioPress to Theme Foundry, also follow WordPress’ guidelines in the matter, and I expect they will continue to in the future.”

28 Feb 2013
Although this debate is an ongoing one, Ta’eed stuck to his word and released the results of the survey on the Envato blog. The survey showed an interest on behalf of Themeforest authors and buyers in having a 100% GPL option and to give credit to Ta’eed he decided to implement this idea as the following announcement makes clear: “After getting this community feedback, we are now putting into the works an optional 100% GPL license which authors in GPL-based categories (such as WordPress or Drupal) can make use of. It will be completely up to authors whether they use this option.” As with previous posts, Matt Mullenweg also responded to this announcement with a short post that read “Great news, and congrats to the entire Envato team.”

The Community

So what began as a case bordering on discrimination ended in a Disneyesque hugs and smiles scene – a triumph for the “WordPress community” … or did it? Has this debate not revealed the extent to which the “community” is strongly divided and partisan? Roughly split between those interested in the income-generating aspects of WordPress; those interested in the learning and empowerment side of WordPress; those interested in WordPress as a coding project; and those in between. In theory, none of these positions are mutually exclusive; you can quite easily create intellectual property on top of the WordPress platform, generate income from it and still contribute to developing the WordPress core or volunteer in one of the many WordPress events and initiatives. In practice, however, it doesn’t seem to work that way.

Those who rely on WordPress theme or plugin design as the sole source of their income tend (quite naturally) to be more concerned with sustaining their livelihood, which often results in a degree of protectionism. In other words they have a vested interest in making sure the platform remains profitable. The danger here is that profit margins gradually begin to drive the “vision” of this collaborative enterprise. To put it yet another way, even though the WordPress core remains 100% GPL, the products that sit on top (themes, plugins and other services) are part of an increasingly competitive market whose practices and values inevitably inflect the rest of the WordPress “ecosystem.” The corollary of this as a WordPress user is that you have little alternative than to submit to it.

This split in the WordPress community dates back to round about 2007/08 and the time when the first wave of “premium” themes and plugins shops really started to take off and WordPress revealed itself as a potential market ripe for exploitation. With that split, the narrative of WordPress as a community-led publishing platform, empowering people to express their voices in a world whose public discourses have traditionally been controlled by major institutions – not least the corporate media – began to wane.

What we are left with today is a disparate array of micro-communities, each with differing interests and pursuits, with different power and organization structures, but split roughly along the lines I just outlined a moment ago. Prior to the emergence of WordPress paid add-on markets, I think the community was just as heterogeneous and splintered as it is today, the sole difference being that these were for the most part “voluntary communities of interest.” I borrow this term from Eric S. Raymond’s famous essay, a pillar of open source literature, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999)”:

I think the future of open-source software will increasingly belong to people who know how to play Linus’s game, people who leave behind the cathedral and embrace the bazaar. This is not to say that individual vision and brilliance will no longer matter; rather, I think that the cutting edge of open-source software will belong to people who start from individual vision and brilliance, then amplify it through the effective construction of voluntary communities of interest.

I think it’s safe to say that Raymond’s vision rings true, particularly in the context of WordPress. There is no doubt that the vision shared between WordPress co-founders Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little, back in 2003 has been amplified through “effective construction of voluntary communities of interest.” From a humble blogging platform it is now one of the leading content management systems on the Web. The problem is quite the opposite: WordPress has become so popular that its interest reaches far beyond its voluntary communities’ control. And With the arrival of premium add-ons, WordPress opened itself up – for better or for worse – to the laws of free market capital. In particular the law of competition. While competition can certainly drive innovation, it can also lead to divisive, exploitative, individualistic tactics too.

The challenge concerning WordPress communities today, is to take a step forward from the cyclical debate about the merits/demerits of open and closed source software – important though it is – and to think about how we might evolve to accommodate these changes and renew the vision and direction of the platform in a collborative and constructive way. To start experimenting again as though it were 2003 and not to fall back on WordPress as a monolith. As I mentioned in the introduction, Tung Do, over at DevPress has suggested a solution along the following lines:

The WordPress community needs a new WordPress centric place to simply exist without strict guidelines. A place to act as a hub for communication. An unbiased source where we can read the news, learn, and exist without the filters that are and A place to meet up for online events. And maybe a free market will grow from it without affecting the .org side of your WordPress life.

I don’t quite know what form Tung’s proposal would take at this point, how it would be organized, of if it indeed it would work, but I certainly recognize something of value in his idea – at the very least, the chance to communicate across divides.