Mullenweg and Pearson, WordPress and

Matt Mullenweg and Chris Pearson are two of the biggest names in the WordPress community — the former is the guy behind WordPress itself, whereas the latter is the owner of the popular WordPress theme framework, Thesis.

Of late, both have found themselves in the midst of a heated discussion, with each of them trying to prove the other wrong. It all began with a domain name.

What is it All About?

Both Matt and Chris have had their differences in the past. Back in 2010, Matt openly criticized Chris because Thesis back then did not adhere to the GPL model.

Of course, this disagreement over licensing was something that Matt was right about: technically, themes and templates related to a GPL software need not be fully GPL, but morally and ethically, there is no ground for non-GPL templates or themes to have anything to do with a GPL software.

That said, the matter probably rested there. Five years forward, the controversy has once again risen, and this time, the differences are related to a domain name.

Back in 2013, a domain name vendor, named Larry, approached Chris, asking him if he were interested in buying — Chris offered $37,500. The deal fell through.

However, nine months later, the same domain name seller approached Chris once again: this time, he had proof that Matt had expressed interest in the domain as well. Once again, Chris failed to capitalize, and Matt bought for a handsome $100K.

According to WP Tavern, Chris sought a legal remedy, but lost the cybersquatting case against Automattic. This means now rests with Automattic, and as of now, it redirects to, Automattic’s theme division.

And as a backlash, Automattic have recently filed a petition for cancellation with the US Patent and Trademark Office, claiming that the Thesis and Thesis Theme trademarks of Chris should be cancelled. Details here.

The Controversy Ensues

It obviously did not end there. Chris Pearson published a rather vocal and passionate explanation of his stand, wherein he questioned Matt’s decision and intentions behind the purchase of the domain name, and went as far as wondering whether Automattic were operating with a selective bias on their mind!

According to Chris, it is well known that Automattic are quick to react if anyone uses “wordpress” anywhere in the domain name — yet, Matt saw nothing wrong in buying a domain name that was based on someone else’s trademark!

Matt has been responding to comments on Chris’s blog post, and so far, his major complaints have been that Chris exhibited literally zero regard for GPL and its terms, and that was not essentially a domain name that could pertain only to Chris’s theme framework. In other words, for $100K, Automattic are claiming that they have bought what is otherwise a cool generic one word domain name.


So, where do we go from here?

As far as I see it, both parties have had their share of faults in this.

First, Chris did indeed not fully respect GPL back when this issue first surfaced, in 2010. In his recent blog post, he went as far as saying that he “was a jerk”. Full points for this confession, but even today, Chris is trying to patent something that otherwise should not be patented: a color picker, for instance. So if one were to talk on ethical grounds, as bad as Matt’s registering of might be, Chris too is not flawless.

The actions of Matt, on the other hand, might seem questionable as well. It is quite obvious to everyone involved in the community that is more relevant to Chris and DIYThemes, than it is to Matt and Automattic. For what it’s worth, Automattic have never been known to be in the business of purchasing cool and generic domain names (Jetpack has a .me domain name, for crying out loud!). As such, having redirect to ThemeShaper can actually be termed a cheap shot.

Still, what Matt has done is not illegal either. Technically, he has a right to purchase a domain name if he can afford it, and redirect it or use it, as per his needs. However, morally and ethically… well, that is up for debate. 


The issue is still far from over, as both Chris and Matt are justifying their respective stands.

For now, the first thing Chris should do is actually consider respecting open source and GPL. DIYThemes, much like many other theme shops out there, relies on WordPress, and open source, and refusing to respect GPL does not cast Chris in a good light.

Furthermore, the best way forward for Matt would be to either publish a blog post titled “I Purchased Because…” and explain his recent purchase without referring to the incidents of 2010, or to sell back to Chris (possibly for $37,500, the price Chris originally quoted to Larry the domain guy).

Speaking of that, in all of this, Larry seems to be the only one who has profited. The WordPress community is surely not going to profit from this tug of war, because both Matt and Chris are respected names, and they have done a lot to make the WordPress community as awesome as it is today!

What do you think of this controversy?


  • Wayne Roddy

    That’s why I use MODX

  • I don’t even understand this argument.

    A lot of WordPress users connect Thesis to Chris Pearson’s product. Period.

    To say otherwise would be dishonest and insulting.

    Matt/Automattic didn’t like someone. They blew $100k to mess with them. Then blew who-knows-how-much on legal expenses to defend the move. It looks that simple.

    That has terrifying implications.

    And the GPL. Who cares? The average user doesn’t.

    They know that WordPress is free. They know that if they pay for a premium add-on, they’re allowed to use the premium add-on.

    They don’t care what license it has. They just want something that works. Chris hit on that in the comments of his post.

    WordPress seems to be missing this lately. If they understood it, they would understand why people don’t care about theme standards. They’ll use a theme with built-in plugins because it works. Many don’t like the customizer because it doesn’t work. Simple.

    And God forbid you research the GPL. That makes things make less sense.

    Software under GPL is free to share, right? Why would a premium product maker use a license that allows free redistribution?

    What are the moral and ethical implications? It seems foolish for a developer to use GPL. It seems like Chris is just protecting his business.

  • Alvaro Gois Santos

    Chris is protecting his business taking advantage of the license contributors to WordPress respect and uphold. Moreover, he’s patenting stuff which is based on WordPress. Which means that, if no one cares and no one makes something about it, someday, backed by this patent, he may enforce some kind of limitation on the use of WordPress itself, or at least some of it’s technology. Even if he says different, who knows if he won’t sell it tomorrow to someone who doesn’t give a s*** to GPL?

    This is not about a domain name. This is about a patent that should not be granted and that can really be a risk to GPL and WordPress.

    There’re a lot of businesses around WordPress that respect GPL. Big businesses actually. And that’s a way to defend and preserve the open source project and this large contributing community.

    If Chris doesn’t comply with GPL, doesn’t trust GPL, doesn’t trust the WordPress contributors and users, he’s free to base his business in other software, not WordPress.

    Maybe this domain name thing is a strange way to go, but I’m glad there’s will and enough energy and power in someone who want’s to defend WordPress and GPL.

  • I’m no attorney, but having been down this road a few times, the statement “[Mullenweg] has a right to purchase a domain name if he can afford it, and redirect it or use it, as per his needs” is almost certainly false, at least if we assume that Pearson does indeed own the trademark on the word “Thesis”, and that trademark indicates the word pertains to website design tools.

    First, understand that domain names that contain trademarks are *very* hard to keep in any scenario. The law very clearly favors the trademark holder. This is especially true when there’s a possibility for confusion. The confusion here is obvious: Thesis is a theme framework. Themeshaper is a system that – in some ways – is similar. It allows people to theme their site. If a judge were to review this (and again, I’m no attorney), it’s my experience that Mullenweg is in the wrong.

    Like I said, I’ve been down this road before, and I’ve been on the wrong end of it (sorry to say). You can’t own someone else’s trademark if there’s a possibility for confusion. That is the standard.

    Now, should Pearson file a lawsuit for trademark infringement? Beats me. But I don’t’ think it’s correct to say Mullenweg can do whatever he wants with a domain name that contains a trademarked term.

  • I agree with your comments about the patent. I think Chris’ actions regarding the patent are as hinky as Matt’s regarding the domain.

    But I still don’t understand the dust up over GPL. I don’t understand how releasing premium add-ons with a GPL supports WordPress any differently than releasing premium add-ons under a different license. Either way, I pay for it then I can use it.

  • Alvaro Gois Santos

    GPL is not about pay or not pay. It’s about the freedom to use. And the need to respect the use and the original license. WordPress has a large community of contributors, they all, in some extent, share the “copyright” to WordPress technology and grant it’s users the liberty to use it, no matter the use they have for it. The only thing all this contributors ask in return is that the derivative work carries the same license, granting the same liberties. You can argue that it’s a restrictive license for developers. On the other hand, you see a lot of business around, with the exact same license, and that doesn’t seem to be a limitation, does it? So, the question here is if you respect the original license and the code all this contributors have made available. If not, there’s a lot of software available with other kind of license you can build upon, there’s no need to use WordPress, not respecting the wish of those that make it.

    One other thing is the patent, which clearly is a danger, not only to WordPress itself. If disregarding the license is serious, trying to patent a system which, obviously, is based on technology that derives from the very way WordPress works, is what? Not serious, to say the least.

  • Thanks for the reply, Alvaro Gois Santos.

    Your explanation is still going over my head.

    I don’t see how it’s about “freedom to use”. It’s a premium add-on. I’m not free to use it. I shouldn’t be free to use it.

    I pay for it and I use it.

    How does a theme being GPL or not GPL affect me?