Until a few weeks ago, I was unaware of the arguments going on surrounding the WordPress GPL license and Thesis, a premium WordPress theme. Tris Hussey provided an insightful post along with a link to an excellent overview by Mark Jaquith. This post isn’t a rehash of the rights or wrongs of either side in the debate (disclosure: I think WordPress has the right of it, which means I probably need to use a new theme on this site). Instead I’m curious (surprise, surprise) about the language of the debate, particularly the exchange between Matt Mullenweg (WordPress) and Chris Pearson (Thesis). [If you have about an hour, I believe it's worth the time to listen to the full discussion.]
Avoiding the Issue
When I’m assessing an argument, I always find it interesting to see who can say the most with the least. During the interview with Matt and Chris on Mixergy, interviewer Andrew Warner posed the question of what Pearson needed to do to bring his premium theme into compliance. Matt’s response: “He just has to say it’s the GNU GPL. That’s it.”
Warner queried Chris as to the impact this change would have on his business. Chris’s answer:
Well, I think it would have a variety of different impacts on the business. The most important one to me is simply my right as an individual to put out some creative work that is independent. WordPress did not empower me to write this software, I wrote all this stuff. I thought about all this stuff. I thought about all the data structures inherent to hosting a webpage. I’ve constructed this all myself. I take great pride in that. I, also, get a little bit defensive when all of that is attacked as if because WordPress existed prior to me coming up with all this stuff that is somehow have to adhere to something that was established beforehand. That’s not fair. That’s like charging our children with debt that we accrue now. I’m not in line with that philosophy. I think that’s terrible.
Feel something’s missing, like an answer? So did Warner and Mullenweg. When pressed to clarify, Chris responded:
One, it would require me to make a concession about something that I don’t think that I need to concede to…
The number two thing in how my business would be affected is if I was to go to GPL that means that anyone can take my code and do whatever they want with it for any purpose they please…
I kept waiting for Chris to argue the specific license parameters of why Thesis doesn’t need to be GPL. However, Pearson was so vague on that topic I had difficulty following his rationale why Thesis doesn’t need to adopt GPL.
Despite the strong feelings on both sides of the argument, I’m intrigued by the randomness of Pearson’s arguments. He veers between saying I just don’t want to, to my work stands alone. At this point, he hasn’t said anything too eyebrow raising, but then we get to the point where Mullenweg points out that Chris has the option of building things for other platforms that are non-GPL. Chris responds with:
I guess my point in all of this is, if you are going to have a license, make it enforceable and enforce it. If you’re not, then don’t. This is all just a bunch of discourse over nothing. Actually, I think all that it’s doing, what it looks like, is enhancing my position and importance within the marketplace, which would seem to be a counterintuitive goal for you. You’d be better off saying nothing and trying to take me to court or doing something undercover, behind the scenes, something. Instead, you chose to fight this thing out front that leaves many question marks on both sides of the fence. I am not saying anything outrageous here. I think a reasonable person would hear this conversation and be genuinely confused about the sate [sic] of things. That’s what I think. You know, what does that really say about this whole thing?
If you follow Pearson’s logic, WordPress and Mullenweg aren’t serious because they aren’t enforcing the license, and if they were, they’d take Thesis to court.
Off the Rails
Despite his best intentions, Pearson doesn’t come out looking very good in this discussion. Even if you’re a Pearson advocate, this exchange between he and Matt doesn’t seem to advance his position is a positive way. For example, he looks particularly silly when he brings in the comparison that while attending college in Georgia “apparently it was illegal, in the Georgia State Doctrine, it was illegal to get a blowjob in the State of Georgia.”
Seriously? How does this point add to your argument? Why not introduce case law or other industry perspectives that support your position? Overall, Matt’s arguments end up stronger because he supports his position with points of reference that make sense (e.g., Free Software Foundation, Software Freedom Law Center, etc.). Again, whether you think Matt or Chris is right, it’s difficult to see how Chris advances his position using the arguments outlined in this discussion.
Too often we overlook the potential we have to advance our causes when we think carefully about the arguments we want to make. Passion isn’t enough when it comes to defending one’s position. The debate between Chris and Matt highlights what can happen when we refuse to analyze why we’ve taken a position and how to describe why we’re holding to that position.