Transcript of WordPress Weekly’s Interview with Matt Mullenweg on 21 December 2008 – Part 1
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything here, apologies, but seeing as the 2 hour interview by Jeff Chandler of WeblogToolsCollection for WordPress Weekly with Matt Mullenweg was quite important in the WordPress community following the removal of 200+ themes from the WordPress Theme Directory, it seemed like an appropriate moment to re-emerge from the newbie wood work and try and contribute towards WordPress again.
The comments that followed the interview pointed out that a text transcript would be helpful, so vaguely inspired by what I have heard so far, I decided to take the plunge and make an amateur attempt at transcribing the rather long interview – over 1:30 hours in length – and what I have done is break it down into several parts. The first part, at least, deals immediately with the ‘FAQ of the moment’ about the removal of the themes and lasts approximately 15 minutes.
At this point, I would like to make a disclaimer and clarify that this is an amateur effort, so: any inaccuracy or omission in this transcript that could cause confusion and result in an inaccurate reflection of Jeff Chandler or Matt Mullenweg’s views on this topic should not be taken to be their actual opinions. I have tried my best to make an accurate transcription where possible, and there are even a few words that I couldn’t figure out (marked with ???), so anyone who can help with any corrections will be very much appreciated!
Cutting straight to the chase, where JC = Jeff Chandler and Matt = Matt Mullenweg:
JC: The goal for this show is to present as many clarifications as possible regarding a number of issues, a number of questions throughout the community. A lot of it has to do with the GPL, the license for which WordPress is filed under.
Premium themes, some changes that have taken place recently, and things of that nature. So, with me on the line, shows up as from California, but I think you’re in Houston, is the one-and-only Mr. Matt Mullenweg. Matt, thank you very much for being part of the show today.
Matt: My pleasure. I would also like to say thank you to whoever fake Matt Mullenweg was, because he was making me look good when it was actually sort of my stupidity (about) the time zone.
JC: *laughs* It’s funny, man. We had about a hundred people in here and we all thought it was you. I was putting a call out there saying ‘Matt, are you having trouble calling in?’ and he says ‘Yeah, I’m trying to get another cell phone because my calls keep dropping.’ So we waited and waited, and I said ‘well, let’s reschedule the show’ after about an hour, and it turns out umm… *laughs* it wasn’t you. He duped us all though!
Matt: *laughs* Well, he sounds like a nice person.
JC: So let me give a little bit of background history for a little bit here. What has happened up to this point: on the night of December 9th and the 10th – over 200 themes were pulled from the theme repository with no warning, and subsequently told that links to the theme author’s website will no longer be approved and as a result, the theme has been suspended.
Also the theme repository had a new guideline put into place and reads as follows: All themes are subject to review. Themes for sites that support Premium, non-GPL compatible themes will not be approved.
On December 12th, Matt responds individually to those affected by the theme removals.
After that, fights about the GPL, how to be compliant, speculation ensued, thus leading me to converse with Matt today on the show, and ask him to be part of this to figure out, (or give) clarification around all of these issues and the questions that I am going to ask you today.
So, first question I have for you, Matt, is: Why were those themes removed from the Repository. And if you look back at the situation now, do you think you made a mistake by not making a public post about the removals, because a lot of people seem to think ‘well, it happened behind the scenes – that’s not good’ and you know, was it made available and there wasn’t any public information.
Matt: Sure. So what happened was sometime I was going back to Houston for Christmas. I was going to see some my old friends, and so I was fixing up their WordPress blog, which was still on 1.2 at the time, *laughs* so actually it was on a version before themes had even existed.
So I started upgrading it, and I went to get a theme for it because he needed a theme. So I went across to the Theme Directory, and as I started to browse around, I actually got really disappointed and really sort of shocked: that the vast majority of the themes that I was looking at were horrible.
And not just horrible in like low quality, obvious that they had just sort of been, dashed off without really a lot of thought. Many of them had like: SEO links from the footer, linking to SEO sites or mortgage sites, and this was exactly the stuff that we had created the theme directory to avoid. Umm… so I definitely (was thinking) ‘Wow, what’s happened here?’
I got in touch with Joseph who works in the Theme Directory and said ‘Hey, obviously some stuff has slipped past the guidelines. It sort of made it past review and we didn’t notice, or that the rules weren’t clear or something.
I think he went through most of the themes or all of the themes; we ended actually removing close to 300 themes. It looks like of those 300, there were maybe 5 or 10 that were questionable. Where rather than being, I mean anything in the theme that was violation of the GPL or guidelines, the site that they linked to, was nothing but, you know, it was non-GPL… like that.
The question sort of became ‘Well, what if they’re just using the GPL theme as an advertisement – to point to something that we wouldn’t allow into the theme repository either, and should we link to that?’ and the decision we made then was ‘No’.
And umm… that wasn’t like a decree or a religious thing: it was more like ‘Ok, well, if we don’t want this sort of stuff, we don’t want this stuff in’ and ??? people I emailed.
JC: And because my next question was going to explain why the new guideline was added to the theme repository. And that guideline which is:
‘Theme for sites that support premium or non-GPL compatible themes will not be approved.’
And that has gotten to the point I… based on how I understand it – if someone were to create a fully compliant GPL theme, which was completely acceptable via the guidelines to be in the theme repository. If the credit link in the footer of that theme which pointed to a site which either has advertising for sites that sell premium themes to support non-GPL themes, or the theme author themselves sold themes on a different part of that site, those are also to be removed.
And you’re not allowed to that anymore. Is my interpretation of that new guideline correct?
Matt: The overall problem is that in the WordPress theme world: there are a lot of good guys; there are a lot of bad guys; and there are a couple of people in the middle. The problem is the bad guys sort of make it worse for the people in the middle.
So for example, you know… on the sponsored link thing. The guideline we put up was that the credit link should go to the author of the theme. The designer, the person who actually did the creative work in creating the theme.
So what happened literally the next day is that we get a theme that was designed by ‘Free Credit Cards’,*laughs* so what they have done is rather than just having ‘Designed by’ you know… ‘Justin Tadlock and sponsored by Free Credit Cards’ , the Free Credit Cards guys just paid whoever was designing the theme to put them as the designer. Any rule we make is gonna have loopholes and people trying to get around it, so ultimately we have to say ‘Well, it’s sort of a discretionary thing’.
The goal of the theme directory was never to have all the themes in the world. It’s never going to have the most themes or anything; it was going to have the very best themes. It’s a place where you can find super high quality theme that supported the latest features of WordPress, and looks good, works well, and it’s supported and updated.
That was the idea: it was never going to be a comprehensive list of all themes in the world. You can find those easily on Google and other theme directories.
JC: Ok, so with that said, I mean: if you’re a WordPress site, with that stipulation – is it advisable for a site not to actually accept or display advertising for people selling themes or…? I mean essentially if I create a GPL theme, and I link it back to my site, but let’s say on a different part of my site, I am also selling themes, that pretty much says ‘well, you violate the guideline, you’re taking me off”. Is that correct?
Matt: First of all, you can do whatever you like on any website. There’s nothing built in WordPress that’s going to you. I am not even going to tell anyone or tell you that you should change things. But WordPress.org is sort of a community hub where we’ve tried to promote the open source stuff.
So, just like I wouldn’t want to, I don’t know, umm… let’s say a commercial CMS, Expression Engine. Ok… I wouldn’t have links advertising Expression Engine on WordPress.org. I wouldn’t have links advertising other things that are not on open source, even ones that actively violate our license.
JC: Ok, so here’s the next question: Why is it that so many people within the inner circle of the WordPress community believe you and Automattic don’t want anyone else profiting through or around WordPress? It seems to be this notion, primarily from those who make a living selling premium themes.
Matt: *laughs* Well, I have said it before that it’s hard to convince anyone that the way that they currently making money is wrong, *laughs* you know, if you are paying your bills with the way you’re making money, you’re going to find ways to rationalise and… sort of believe in that. There are, at every WordCamp, there will be 100 people there, and there may be 20-30 there making their living from WordPress right then.
And it’s all sorts of different things: sometimes it’s developing sites, like their agency is a site developer or designers; sometimes they’re provide training services – education; sometimes they’re just working for a company and being like the sort of full time WordPress guy.
But if I had to estimate, there are probably tens of thousands of people out there that make their living either with or on top of WordPress, and that’s not even counting bloggers. If you talk about a network like Digg or ??? or TechCrunch or something, also built entirely on top of WordPress.
So I’m totally for that. And you know what, honestly, the GPL is very commercially friendly. It was designed to allow commercial enterprises to thrive. You know some people say it doesn’t work, but you only have to look at one, the growth of WordPress, and two, the growth of the open source world in general for the past thirty years to say ‘Wow, this is actually a very, very powerful force.’
JC: OK, in your opinion, do you think that premium themes have actually benefited the community by overall furthering the development of WordPress themes?
Matt: Well, there is certainly some stuff that I first saw in premium themes that I hadn’t seen at other places. Particularly around the sort of Magazine, CMS style.
JC: Yeah, well… I mean, I witnessed that craze myself. I started seeing different sites coming out with this cool, news and magazine layout – typically confined to the themes that you had to pay for. And then next thing you knew, you had… Justin Tadlock came out with the free theme called Structure and Options, which replicated many of those same features but it was released for free. And a lot of the other variants started to pop up. But, I mean, that’s just one example with this question, in terms of furthering the overall development of WordPress themes.
Matt: Well, to some extent it doesn’t further it in the same way that an open source theme would, simply because if I want to build on top of whatever the cool magazine theme was, I would have to basically start from scratch and have to be really careful not to be too close to what I am trying to emulate.
Compare that to some of the free themes that have rocked the WordPress world, including – the one we all know and love now, Kubrick – *laughs* and instantly on top of Kubrick there are a bunch of things. People started copying and pasting the code and tweak it, for the better, and you had some really fast innovation.
I don’t know if any of you guys remember the very first Kubrick versus what we eventually put into WordPress. It changed significantly, what happened was an open source community developed around it, and started tweaking the design, the code and everything like that.
When Kubrick very, very first came out, everyone loved it and wanted it to be the WordPress theme. And we all thought ‘No, no way we’re putting this in!’ because the code was horrible. *laughs* It just wasn’t very good.
But then the community around it actually made the code actually pretty decent, and the story was that later it became in default WordPress, so… I think that’s sort of a good example, and there have been others since then, where you really get the benefit of open source both in the quality; the users and the developers could both benefit because (for) the developer – people helping them out made the theme better – and users get this, sort of, rapid innovation, and two, a lot of themes based around the theme they like.
JC: So, in a recent conversation, I saw you describe premium themes as ‘proprietary’ and how you felt that was a better word than premium. Why is that?
Matt: Oh, because ‘premium’ is a little insulting to the thousands of people who have created ‘non-premium’ themes, because it implies its better, right? Why are premium themes better than free themes?
So, umm… I’m just not crazy about that, because that’s almost like saying ‘I’m not using WordPress, I’m using a premium CMS’, *laughs* everyone in the WordPress world would be like “What do you mean? That’s not ‘premium’. It’s actually worse!”
So I think ‘proprietary’ is probably the most neutral way to describe them, because they might be better or worse – it’s hard to say – but it’s definitely true that their licensing is proprietary and restrictive freedom.
JC: So I see, you’re talking about ‘proprietary’ in the sense that, people who purchase a theme are usually a purchasing a single or multi-site use license, so depending on the license structure of that premium theme, it kinda dictates, at least according to the theme author, they can actually redistribute that or not, or only use it on one site or not.
Matt: Ultimately it’s about freedom. It’s like buying a copy of Windows, right? You’re completely at the whims of Microsoft. Whatever they put in their license, you’re stuck with. And if they decide to change the license in the future, you’re stuck with that as well.
With premium themes, you could have the exact same situation you had with Movable Type, where one day they just wakeup and say ‘Ah… we’re changing the license. Do you want to upgrade etcetera? You have to comply with this.’ You have no control if it’s not open source, so ultimately your freedom is not guaranteed.
JC: Ok, so how many of these debates and the way things are done are a result of there not being a court case to go by in terms of all these GPL arguments and what not?
Matt: I think it’s important to separate it out. Although I have talked to many good lawyers before about these issues, I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t argue the specific legalities of things. So everything I’m talking about here, I’m not talking whether it’s illegal or not to do these things.
My personal opinion and the opinion of the folks I talk to is that: some things are not; some things are grey areas; and some honestly, like you said, haven’t been tested in a court case.
All I’m talking about is for WordPress.org – the site we run and host – do we want this stuff in there. And that’s where ??? speak authoritatively. (Note: The last sentence is really not very clear)
JC: Does it bother you to see countless debates on various WordPress theme author sites about the GPL and what is and not compliant with it. Virtually any site I’ve… I’m very participative in the WordPress community… and back in the summer, Ian Stewart on ThemeShaper, boy, there was a very long debate on GPL, what is compliant and what’s not; CSS, images, themes and what not.
And I see you on almost every one of these debates kinda chiming in with a comment here and there,…. umm… what does it mean to you, and how do you feel when you see everybody, these countless debates, over and over again, these never ending debates?
Matt: I think debate is good. Because the more conversation we have around these issues, the more sort of different ??? that get out there. You know I think, sometimes that people change their mind – not often- but occasionally they do.
So, I think debates are fine.
JC: I mean, does it bother you to the point that these people just don’t get it, or do you feel that maybe that if they would just simply comply with the GPL, or the wishes of the umm… licensee holder of the software, then all of this wouldn’t be debated so much?
Matt: Well, the only thing that frustrates me about them is that sometimes people turn the discussion of issues into attacks on myself or Automattic and anything like that.
JC: Oh yeah, that happens a lot. In almost every one of these debates, someone’s mentioning your thoughts or trying to think for you, and they’re always slinging around attacks.
Matt: And you know… that hurts. *laughs* It does, so that’s the only downside. If, when people are talking about this, let’s just try to talk about what’s going on, the issues – those things – rather than saying ‘Matt is evil’, ‘Matt doesn’t want us to make money’, ‘He’s just trying to create a monopoly’ all these things they say, coz that sucks.
JC: So, Drupal and Joomla have decided that commercial stuff is ok. But why not WordPress?
Matt: So, I took a look at this actually. Umm…because, you know, what other projects have done before is, I think, sort of a good model for us to follow in many ways.
I went to the Drupal site, Drupal.org Joomla site, Joomla.org, and I looked around and I couldn’t find any themes. Umm… so as far as I can tell, they aren’t hosting themes.
Then I Google’d for Drupal Joomla premium themes, and there are a… ton. Probably more than we have in the WordPress world, I mean just a ‘ton’ of premium themes there. And it actually looks like they have more premium themes than normal themes. That’s just my non-scientific sort of Googling around, but I was just… amazed.
They also seem to still have sponsored themes in their community. So I saw a lot of places where there was a free theme, but it either had a restrictive license that said you can’t change links, or redistribute or anything, and (it) often had advertising links in the footer.
So that’s where Joomla is. And then I checked out Drupal.org, which does host themes. I went to their theme directory, and I searched for premium and I couldn’t find a single one; except that there was one that was based on a WordPress premium theme… *laughs*
Matt: So as far as I can tell, that in the Drupal community, there aren’t really… and I’ve Google’d for Drupal premium themes, and I really got no hits. There was just like a forum there with someone asking ‘Hey, if I made a premium theme, what should I charge for it?’ So,as far as I can tell, Drupal doesn’t really have any premium themes in the same way that WordPress does.
So, looking in those two directions, I think Drupal probably hasn’t run into this problem yet, in the same way that we have. Joomla, as they say …’anything goes’, and the situation over there is that the premium stuff is really crowding out the free resources, which kinda makes sense.
I mean, if you aligned economic incentive, we are actually disincentivising anyone to … make open source stuff. That’s eventually what’s going to happen is, that over time, the community will be more and more commercial, and you get to the point, it is actually…
People I’ve talked to who have switched from Joomla to WordPress – the reason they were doing it, they’ve said to me ‘I’ve set up my Joomla site and it was nice, and then everything I want to do costs a nickel and a dime’, and you end up paying for every plugin and extension and theme that you’re going to try out. And ultimately that frustrated them so much, they ended up switching platforms.
The interview moved on to what I am terming ‘part 2’ with a little more detailed discussion on themes, further taking into account what direction Joomla and Drupal have taken. I found this section of the interview very interesting, especially as Jeff Chandler – being a previous user of Joomla – has more input here, and I am also someone who has migrated over.
Part 3 then returns to WordPress-specific questions and the latest developments of themes in the WordPress world.
I will certainly try my best to transcribe Parts 2 & 3 as soon as possible, but hopefully this amateur transcription may be of some help to others!