Transcript of WordPress Weekly’s Interview with Matt Mullenweg on 21 December 2008 – Part 2

Following on from Part 1 of WordPress Weekly’s Interview with Matt Mullenweg by Jeff Chandler, it has been really a nice surprise to receive such kind comments from various visitors (including *the* Jeff Chandler) who appear to have liked my efforts at transcribing the interview, and really makes those 2 hours of work seem very satisfying and worthwhile, so thank you all!

Before moving straight onto Part 2, where Jeff and Matt continue their discussion of themes in the context of the direction Joomla and Drupal teams have taken, I must say again:

DISCLAIMER: 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.

As before, words that I have not been able to figure out are marked with ??? and corrections are always welcome and appreciated!

In this transcription, JC = Jeff Chandler and Matt = Matt Mullenweg and starts 20 minutes into the audio file:

JC: In November, with regards Joomla… I used Joomla for over a year and a half and there are plenty of theme clubs for Joomla. It’s almost like, the situation with WordPress, for the longest time, I’ve been harping on the fact that the themes for Joomla seem so cool.

You can assign modules to the various places on the page, something I’d like to see with widgets. You can assign them to here or there, but in my opinion, the overall free themes in the WordPress world are… pretty crappy. And from my history of using WordPress, I’ve actually purchased two or three premium themes because they’ve offered a design and some features that I just don’t see in the free ones.

But essentially what you’re saying is that it’s getting to the point in the Joomla community… is that you pretty much have to buy for anything good, you have to buy for everything, and that’s completely against what the GPL is all about?

Matt: Umm… well, the GPL doesn’t say anything about whether you can charge or not. In fact, under the GPL it’s completely fine to charge for any ??? software, any ??? copies and everything like that. It’s really just about the freedom that the user and developer have. So, what the GPL says is you’re welcome to sell something, but you can’t tell someone they can’t modify it, or can’t redistribute it, or can’t do anything on top.

JC: Right… I think we need to stress that point that when we say GPL and free, we mean free as in freedom, and not free really as in price.

Matt: Yeah.

JC: Because a lot of the people get this notion that: if it’s under GPL it has to be free. No, it doesn’t. It just has to be able to be modified and released, (and) redistributed for free. I hope I got that right. Hope I didn’t just ??? myself there.

Matt: If we have a minute, I would actually like to read the four freedoms of the GPL. (Quick Guide to GPLv3)

JC: Yeah, we got all the time we want.

Matt: So the first one is the freedom to run the program for any purpose.

Number 2 is the freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs. Access to the source code is a pre-condition for this.

Number 3, freedom to distribute copies so you can help your neighbour.

Number 4, the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements and modified versions in general to the public, so the whole community benefits.

That’s really the core of the spirit and the intention of the GPL.

JC: Ok. And umm… in November of 2007, hot off the heels of WordCamp Argentina, news came out about a possible theme market place, where people sold themes through the market place, and the theme author, as well as Automattic each received a cut of the profits. Now, was that your way of trying to help premium theme authors, and has there been any progress on the idea?

Matt: Well, so… the whole idea behind that was two fold.

One, the most popular request on is more themes. *laughs* That’s the number one thing.

And also, I guess at the time we had around 1.5 million blogs, now we have over 5 million. Anything we offer to that community gets them… really… instant adoption. Umm… it’s not unusual that we offer new products, the next day there’s 50 or 100,000 people using it. So it just seemed like a great, sort of, opportunity for folks.

The second thing was that the trend I noticed, in both other places that have had paid or sponsored themes and everything like that, is that it’s very designer unfriendly.

The economics eventually end up in a place that benefits umm… quantity over quality. So if you look at something, even like Template Monster is probably the epitome of an example for this, is where … they outsource the design, they churn out as many as possible, so they have hundreds and hundreds, so probably paying these guys nothing.

So the only person really making money here; of course the designers are making money, but they are making money… it’s outsourced so it’s pretty little. Then whoever the guy in the middle – the Template Monster or whoever – is just trying to get as many as possible. So the designers are really marginalised, and I wanted something that could sort of re-empower designers. I wanted designers to make a lot of money.

The reason something like this happens on Template Monster is because they have the distribution. Now, because they have 500 themes, everyone goes to them to find… a paid website to get a paid theme. Whereas a designer might only create 3 or 5 themes a year, or maybe call it 10 or 12.

So those were the things I was trying to get around, by giving folks really good distribution, we could sort of… it’s almost kinda like record labels and musicians, right? It’s actually a very, very similar situation. And (in) most of the premium template world, you have these record labels that are essentially buying the talent and then taking most of the profits.

I want to re-enable the musician to ??? their own masters.

And that’s what’s ??? for music as well, so I was a little bit inspired by that.

JC: And back at that time, there was this statement made that Automattic would take 50% of the profits, where the theme author would get 50%. But I believe that was just an idea to kind of explain how it works. Because then many people, like premium theme authors said ‘Well, that’s too much. Why do that when I create a premium theme, sell it and reap in the full profits?’

Matt: Well there’s only one answer to that: it’s ‘distribution’. *laughs* And that’s still the same answer. Umm… you can create the same idea. Of course, we didn’t launch it, so there’s no chance to test this out, and we might have tweaked the percentage based on that, but half-and-half just seemed like a super fair place to start it, and we could tweak it over time?

But think about it, if you put a premium theme on your site, and 10,000 people see it per month or something, you might sell let’s call it … a thousand copies. Or if you put it into and 5 million people see it, it might sell tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of copies. The most popular themes on have half a million users, so there is potential there for a lot more distribution.

JC: In terms of working on the idea… it hasn’t been launched yet. Has there been any kind of progress or what’s the one thing holding it back from being released?

Matt: Well, we worked on it quite a bit. And it got to a point where I said: ‘Well, I don’t think it’s really right to do this before we, umm…. clean up the situation on the site.’

So actually a lot of the code is similar; we took a lot of the development we’d done and put it into Because if you look at how works, you know you upload the files, there’s a moderation queue and everything like that. Umm… a lot of the same features we’d originally developed for the market place. And I just had Joseph, who had worked on that open source development, put it all in.

So, it seemed like, it would be good to get the site working first.

And the second thing is: I wasn’t really sure how to align the incentives properly. I’m still working on it. I don’t have a good, good idea yet. Because is a hosted service, nothing is ever distributed, which means it doesn’t actually invoke the GPL, so things on the repository are not required to be GPL.

And I was trying to figure out the best way to go about this. In the original announcement I said that anything that was in the repository also has to be GPL. Anything that we’re going to distribute on And that works, right, because then on .org you get the same theme for free.

But I think it kinda creates a sort of weird situation, where… say there’s a theme that’s 500 dollars or a thousand dollars, or something like that. A user of could just go to and get it for free.

And we said ‘It has to be GPL, but…’ We’re just trying to figure it out, and obviously we haven’t yet (figured out) what is the best way to sort of…. align the economic incentives for folks who are using the market place to still align with the community incentives of

It’s a tough problem. I mean it’s the same thing I was thinking of when I first started Automattic. I totally believe in all these things, and as long as I’m around, the company is going to do the right thing. But what’s the way to align the incentives so that even if I’m not around, the company will still be… still do the right thing.

For that what we figured out was having everything be open source and Automattic has no intellectual property, and separating out from Automattic and all that was the way to do it, and it’s worked really well. We are now three years in, but I haven’t figured out the way to do that for themes yet.

JC: I wanted to read you something. Getting back to the themes and what not. The Drupal community has debated this GPL-premium theme issue for quite a while now, and according to them, a solid understanding has come from it.

So I wanted to read you a little example that was taken from a Drupal theme developer’s page, and this is what they say:

A theme is made up of several files – template files (ending in .php), CSS, images and JavaScript. The template files are considered part of Drupal, which is licensed under the GPL, which means they are not restricted in their distribution. You are free to share the .php files so others can benefit from them.

However, the rest of the theme – images, CSS, JavaScript – is independent from Drupal and owned by us and licensed by you for one website per purchase. You may not publish or share these parts of the themes with anyone else. Please review the EULA for full details. (Source)

Umm… what do you think about that type of policy. Does that fall in line with being able to sell a theme whilst being completely under the GPL there?

Matt: So basically… what you’re doing in that situation is looking for a loop hole, where you’re saying ‘Ok, because we have to, we’re going license the PHP files as GPL. But all this other stuff that actually provides the value, we’re not going to.’

So if you could imagine, what if we distributed WordPress without CSS, or images or JavaScript. *laughs* I mean, who would use that? Would you use that?

JC: No, no I wouldn’t. *both laugh*

Matt: Of course the value is in the whole package. From a legal basis, I totally see their argument. The CSS is not linked in the same way, it doesn’t call internal functions of WordPress, and it does (is) not required to be GPL.

I think that on the Free Software Foundation’s website, they have sort of a weird thing where they say that JavaScript can invoke the GPL because it’s doing… within the browser’s DOM, it’s doing function calls across it. And if it’s not the intention, they recommend special exceptions to that. So there is an argument in fact that the browser is the execution model that’s ???. And that’s… honestly, I don’t care. *laugh* That’s not… that’s for a lawyer to figure and court cases to figure out and everything like that.

What I care about is what we have control of, which is a: what I do with all my open source projects, which is to make them entirely GPL. You’re never going to get a version of WordPress with differently licensed CSS or JavaScript.

And two, what we promote on the site. *laughs* So what we promote on this site are open source community projects. I think we should promote things that sort of embrace the same freedoms that WordPress itself does, and that’s all I’m really concerned about.

That really concludes Part 2. And as mentioned before, Part 3 moves onto more WordPress-specific questions about themes and actual questions from premium theme authors to Matt. Given the length of Part 3, it may be split (again, sorry!) to sub-parts, but we’ll see how the transcribing goes tomorrow.

Till then, thanks to everyone for your support so far! 🙂

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  1. […] Snippets did the community a great deal of service by transcribing the long interview (part one | part two | part three) with more part forthcoming as per this […]

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