There is an intense debate brewing in the open source development community these days whose resolution could have widespread implications for the sharing and distribution of software. Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, disagrees with the way Chris Pearson, creator of a popular WordPress theme and framework, has chosen to distributed his product – a method he believes is against the rules and licenses WordPress operates under. The two seem to be unwaveringly at odds, which could mean a lawsuit is on the horizon, but what would that mean for free software distribution?

“At what point does WordPress get to be the be-all end-all about what works with it?”
– Chris Pearson

At the crux of the disagreement is the

General Public License (GPL)

– the most widely used free software license under which WordPress licenses its software. The GPL requires the free and open distribution of any code under its license, and sets rules for when outside “third-party” code also must abide by its rules. Mullenweg says the GPL is WordPress’ “Bill of Rights” because “it protects [its] core freedoms.”

Mullenweg asked the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) to clarify whether WordPress themes fall under the GPL. What the SFLC found is that while the PHP files that leverage WordPress’ copyrighted code are protected by the GPL, the images and CSS files of the themes are not. In other words, the car’s engine is protected, but not the paint and the body.

Pearson, the creator of Thesis, a premium WordPress theme and “framework,” licenses his software differently in an effort to curb the redistribution to third parties. Pearson believes his theme should not fall under the GPL because it “stands alone outside of WordPress completely,” a statement with which Mullenweg disagrees.

“You can do whatever you like but anything built on top of the GPL must be GPL itself. That’s the crux of it.”
– Matt Mullenweg

The debate came to a head Wednesday when Pearson and Mullenweg spoke at length while streaming live with

Mixergy’s Andrew Warner

. Both sides presented their arguments, but no real progress was made other than to better inform the public of the core of their disagreement.

“At what point does WordPress get to be the be-all end-all about what works with it? All it does is deal with front and backend database rights and reads,” said Pearson. “Why does it get to determine everything else, even if the scope of another project that works with WordPress may vastly exceed the scope of WordPress itself?”

“WordPress is built on the license of a GPL that has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to build amazing businesses off it. All it really says is that you can do whatever you like but anything built on top of the GPL must be GPL itself. That’s the crux of it,” said Mullenweg. “That’s how the WordPress system works.”

The development community is somewhat divided on the issue, but it does seem that more (as far as this author can see) are leaning toward backing Mullenweg and WordPress. Unfortunately, a public argument like this is detrimental to the open source community, and a lawsuit – which Pearson all but dares Mullenweg to initiate – would be even worse.

It seems that Mullenweg is between a rock and a hard place on this one – not wanting to sue a member of the WordPress community but also not wanting to allow what he views as a damaging and disrespectful license violation to stand. A lawsuit could set precedents that could open up further lawsuits, which would be a terrible result for the development community. At this point, either option seems equally unappetizing.

Photo by Flickr user seanosh.