Transcript of WordPress Weekly’s Interview with Matt Mullenweg on 21 December 2008 – Part 3

Since posting Part 1 and Part 2 of the transcript of WordPress Weekly’s interview with Matt Mullenweg by Jeff Chandler, I have received some really encouraging comments from WordPress ‘enthusiasts’ such as Sophia Lucero, who simplified key questions at the start of conversation into a straightforward summary on WordPress Philippines, and also Monika, zaki, Margaret, Hafiz, and that girl again. A big thank you to everyone for taking the time to comment, as the comments really do cheer me on to aspire to greater things… like the completing the transcription :p

Aside from the usual disclaimer below and the note that words I couldn’t figure out are marked with three question marks, without further ado:

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.

JC: When the notion of making money by selling themes pops up at WordCamps, you’re quick to explain the business model of selling services and building support and value around the product. But, this model won’t work for everyone, so what is a premium theme author to do, especially in light of these recent guideline changes and what not?

Matt: They don’t have to do anything different. Umm… one of the things though, I’m not in the business myself, so honestly, it’s more likely that they’re going to figure out the perfect model than I am.

But when I’ve talked to a lot of folks at these different WordCamps and said ‘Well, why did you buy this theme?’

I think you break the world down into two people: there are people who have more money than time, and people who have more time than money.

And so basically what they said was that they wanted a good-looking WordPress site, but they didn’t have time to tweak a theme and they didn’t want to figure something out, it basically looked like too much hassle. So what really drew, at least the folks I talked to, to the premium themes were the marketing of services around it.

One, if you look a lot of these folks, they have really nice websites built up around the themes. *laughs* They’ve got main ???, support forums, and really good screenshots of it, and ??? and everything like that. So there’s some really good promotion.

And two, if they’re having trouble, they’ve got really good forums or paid support, or something like that, so you know the forums are going to help you out.

I think people are totally willing to pay for that peace of mind, and also knowing that themes are going to be updated. So for example, when we had a new feature in WordPress like Threaded Comments or Gravatars, or something like that, the theme is going to be updated as well, so people are totally willing to pay for those things. And that… is where I see a lot of the true value being created, in these sorts of proprietary, commercial environments.

And I love what Revolution has done, where they say ‘Ok, so we still sold the theme, and we still bundle the support and everything like that with it, but it’s also available as GPL.’ So they’re able to, within the GPL framework, create a business and respect the underlying license of the community that they are building on top of.

JC: Ok, I’ve spoken to a few premium theme authors and they tell me that because of the GPL…

Matt: We should really separate it out from this point in the conversation, because Brian’s is a premium theme, but it’s not proprietary. So are we talking about proprietary people or non-proprietary people?

JC: Umm… in terms of who I’ve spoken to?

Matt: Yeah (x3) … we should, we should separate it out on how we talk about it.

JC: Let’s see… in this question, its proprietary I guess.

Matt: Ok.

JC: So, I’ve spoken to a few proprietary theme authors, if that’s the way we want to do it, and some of them have told me that because of the GPL, nothing stops… and they point to the example of Brian’s business model. And they say that nothing stops anyone from picking up Brian Gardner’s themes, changing the footer link and undercutting his business by selling support at a cheaper price.

Now, is that a valid argument?

Matt: Umm… sure. Nothing stops someone competing with by downloading and setting up their own, but that argument also ??? both ???

Let’s say they claim that nothing is GPL, the entire theme is under a license. What’s to stop someone from downloading the premium theme, or buying one, and setting up a site to redistribute it.

I don’t think they have a very strong legal basis on which to prosecute that person that just made every theme available for free, because they don’t have a strong legal basis that their own licensing is built on, so they can’t really go after someone else for violating what they consider their licensing to be.

So it’s … I think that always *pause* there’s going to be situations where you say an evil person could do something bad to it. But that’s not how actually in the real world. What you’re looking at is a lot of things beyond just the commodities that may influence people’s decision.

So I know, that personally as a consumer, if I saw- let’s called it the Revolution theme…from Brian’s site – and then I saw someone else selling the same theme for cheaper, I would want to go to the author, because I figured:

A: I want to see more of these themes, so I want to give him the incentive to create more;

B: It’s the right thing to do, so I believe in that; and then

C: I would feel like no one in the world is going to be able support the theme better than he can.

So that’s just where I would put my business from a purely selfish point of view, I feel like I would get the best experience there.

And it’s still the same argument…where people say… the people pirating software argument. I’m totally annoyed when I download software and it treats me like a criminal, even software I paid for. You know, like Photoshop or something.

Photoshop is not a great example, but umm…. but I always had an Apple iTunes music…

JC: Like DRM on music.

Matt: Yeah, man. It drives me crazy! I’m changing computers all the time and I’ve got iPods and break em’ and I have to get a new one and something like this. And I’ve had it before where it’s like ‘You have reached your limit of number of computers.’ I’m like ‘What do you mean?’ This is my computer and music I paid for, and you’re telling me I can’t use it?

It’s because they’re treating me like one of the bad guys. I think a better model is to just, like I’ve said before, some people are going to pay for your stuff and some people do everything they can to not.

The people in the latter camp, you’re probably not going to convert. They don’t care whether it’s proprietary or licensed or what, they’re just never going to pay you.

So the thing to do is really embrace the folks who do want to pay you for the value provided, and treat them like super stars, like rock stars, not like criminals.

JC: Ok, so redistributing paid themes for free, which is ok under the GPL, thus rendering the business model of selling themes useless as I understand it? Yet, that hasn’t happened. And I wonder if that is because most end users are not aware of the GPL, and all they see is the single-use, multi-use license attached to the themes, and also maybe, because these people have spent 60, 70 dollars on the theme, they’re not going to go sharing it off, or redistributing it because they don’t want to, they’ve made an investment there.

Matt: *laughs* Yeah, I think you’ve just nailed it. One, there’s sort of a benefit to exclusivity, and that’s something that I think people are paying for as well.

But two, to the foremost point, and I think it already has happened and if you Google around you can find any of these themes for free.

JC: So… in your mind, with the whole GPL argument and rendering themes, or the business model of selling themes that are under GPL… I mean, I’ve been thinking about this, and when I’ve delved into it, and I’ve been thinking ‘If people can redistribute these themes for free, how are premium themes still in existence?’ I would have thought by now the premium theme market would have been eroded by everybody redistributing their stuff for free, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Matt: Oh, because I don’t think that the value is in the theme itself, I think it’s in the services and things they’re providing around the theme. That’s my true opinion. And honestly, if someone submitted one of those themes to the directory, we wouldn’t accept it either, because I also believe in respecting the wishes of the author or something. Just like I’m asking them to respect the wishes of the WordPress authors.

JC: Here’s a good question for you… well, these are all good questions… is there a way where premium theme companies such as iThemes and you or Automattic can come to a compromise? Is there a middle ground here between the way companies like iThemes do business and the way you want things done, or there is no compromise?

Matt: Well, one it’s got nothing to do with Automattic. *laughs*

JC: Ok, I’m glad you make that point.

Matt: So is there a way which… we can compromise with the community or me… is that the question?

JC: I guess that would be the question since it has nothing to do with Automattic.

Matt: Umm… I don’t know really. I think that the goals… of our themes aren’t really… there’s not a lot of grey area there: it’s either open source and it’s a benefit to the community or it’s not.

If something benefits the community: happy to promote it, happy to get the word out that and encourage people to check it out.

And I do believe that the support and customisation, all these services that people are doing around premium themes are truly valuable. Other stuff, like uhh… if it’s not really something that we would do ourselves with, it’s probably not something that we’d want to promote on that website.

And again, all we’re talking about is the stuff that’s on the website. *laughs* We’re not going out there and suing people, or doing anything like that; we’re just saying these are things we want to host or not.

And… there’s a million things we could do. There was this screw-up I made years ago about having paid links on the website…

JC: Ah yes, I’ve seen that on a couple of discussion areas. And uhh… these people, you know, I follow these discussions about what you’re doing and the decisions that are made, and you’ve sort of got people here who follow you around and say ‘Oh… this is what he did 3 years ago, he’s still evil.’ *laughs*

Matt: Yeah… I mean, I try to be at the bleeding edge of screwing things up. *laughs* Making it safe so you don’t have to. *laughs*

JC: *laughs*

Matt: No but, yeah… that was two and a half years ago before we had any sponsored themes, right? So it was really just the same thing… same mistake I had made, but now there are just a bunch of theme designers doing the same thing.

I think we just have to be consistent. You know, it’s not that dissimilar to Google’s Webmaster development. Google says you can do whatever you want on your website, but if you do something which drives… damages the web community as a whole, if you pee in the pool so to speak, they’re not going to include you in their index, or they’re going to move you down in their index.

It’s the same sort of idea, you can do anything you want. But the stuff that I think we should be careful about is the stuff we promote on, because to me, WordPress is something that’s… going to be around for decades – it’s going to be around 5, 10, 20 years from now – so the decisions that we make now are going to influence the direction it goes.

And you can look at other open source projects to see how this happens. I mean, what’s going to keep WordPress from becoming a PostNuke or even like a Joomla, where you go to it and it seems like most of the stuff is paid, and there are not that many free resources, which ultimately is going to hurt the viability of the underlying platform.

Umm… I think it’s really a commitment to what got us to where we are today.

It would be dumb to say ‘Ah well, yeah, we beat Movable Type, and they were proprietary and we were open source, and open source got us to this point, but now that we’re popular, we’re going to change our mind and say we don’t believe in open source anymore, we don’t want to promote that anymore just to make money.’

I think that would ultimately kill the project. We need to be true to what got us to this point in order to stay around, stay relevant.

JC: So, one thing, and I’m – you can imagine we have quite an active chat room here – but I want to make this point perfectly clear and that is: You’re dictating what happens on and the sites around; the theme repository, the plugin repository and what you actually promote to the community.

You… for instance, outside of that, let’s say a company or people who have a business selling themes, you don’t really care what it is they’re doing… it’s just that you won’t support them or promote them in the way that they’re doing things, is this correct?

Matt: Well, I care. But, I ultimately believe that market forces will… even things out. I don’t think it’s worth me going after people in sort of a … antagonistic way.

JC: Ok, because…

Matt: I prefer rewarding good behaviour rather than penalising people for doing the wrong thing.

JC: Well, because a lot of people seem to think ‘Well, in order to do things, you’ve got to do things Matt’s way or the high way.’ And… is that true, or is it just that your way is dictated with the way of …

You run and operate… you’re the project leader for and I imagine you’ve got these guidelines in place, and people have to follow them. And if they don’t follow them, they’re not going to get your support and the project support, right?

Matt: Yeah. And umm… but it’s not my way or the high way. You know, there are still lots of websites and lots of places, there can be other theme directories, there doesn’t only have to be one theme directory in the world.

It’s just on the platform I think we want to provide:

A: The best experience to users; and
B: Be true to our open source roots.

I did mention in Part 2 that there was the possibility that the original ‘3-part’ transcription may be split into more parts, and – learning from my naivety/over-ambitiousness about how much transcribing can be done in a few hours – this will be the case. However, the next part starts with Matt Mullenweg replying to questions posed by premium or proprietary theme authors, so hopefully this is a good place to pause for the time being.

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One comment on “Transcript of WordPress Weekly’s Interview with Matt Mullenweg on 21 December 2008 – Part 3
  1. I really enjoyed reading articles on this site. I’m looking forward on reading your updated post. Thank you.

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