WordPress MU, GPL and Paywalls

Filed as Features on September 29, 2009 11:13 am

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It started with a 16-word comment, a reply to a commenter on Weblogs Tools Collection that had lamented not being able to afford a WordPress MU plugin that was being offered as a premium service by WPMU.org for $79. The comment simply said the following:

It would be nice if someone entered in the contest plugins that do everything theirs do.

However, the comment came from WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and that caused a hailstorm of controversy, including a blog post from James Farmer the founder of Incsub, a WordPress MU community, Edublogs, a blog hosting platform based upon WordPress MU and WPMU.org, a WordPress MU community site with free and premium elements.

Farmer accused Mullenweg of wishing that the company would “bust” and the heated exchange continued in the blog comments.

The case shows exactly how heated and volatile the mixture of open source and business cane be sometimes. When community-driven projects meet with business interests the relationship is rarely smooth and perfect, even though the two need each other to survive.

Concerns and Frustrations

Farmer’s frustration is understandable. WPMU.org has been a very important member of the WordPress MU community. They release free plugins and themes, hold contests with cash prizes for freely-available themes and plugins for WordPress MU and are fully GPL-compliant, even with their premium plugins and themes.

As discussed previously, it is WPMU.org’s right to sell GPLed software, the same as it is for anyone else, the difference in the GPL is the rights given to the user upon distribution. Even Matt Mullenweg agrees with this, saying in a comment that “Nothing here is illegal, or unethical, or wrong — it’s all completely valid….”

It is easy to see how Mullenweg’s initial comment could be perceived as an attack, even though he likely didn’t mean it as such, and why Farmer would be upset and angry at it, especially after all his company has tried to do for WordPress MU and spent so much time, money and energy developing the premium plugins.

Mullenweg’s frustrations, however, are also understandable. Mullenweg is concerned about the community aspect of WordPress MU and is worried that much of the development seems to be locked behind a paywall. When responding to a commenter who said that “WPMU and Buddypress is only half complete without WPMU Dev Premium”, Mullenweg had this to say:

Therein lies the problem. WordPress is not half-complete without subscribing to something for hundreds of dollars primarily because the people in its community (including Automattic) push improvements, fixes, and crucial features into the core software or existing plugins. When that development is instead channeled behind a paywall, regardless of license, the community suffers, as MU has.

He went on to say that WordPress MU, despite running as many blogs as WordPress itself does, receives less than 1/10th the contributions to its code. Mullenweg also said that WordPress MU is being “discontinued” though it is unclear if he was referring to the much-discussed merger with the regular WordPress codebase or an outright discontinuation of the product.

In the end though, both sets of concerns are understandable and, though things could have likely been worded better, it is clear to me that both sides have the community’s interest at heart. The question is how can the users of WordPress MU best be served? On that front, there is much room for legitimate debate.

Bottom Line

It is of little surprise that WordPress MU would be more closely married to commercial interests than its counterpart. Where WordPress is a blogging solution targeted primarily at individuals, WordPress MU, which focuses on allowing a single installation to create and operate many different blogs, is, by its very nature, better aimed at institutions of various sizes and kinds.

This gives WordPress MU a significantly smaller potential audience, Though WordPress MU may run as many blogs as WordPress, there are many times fewer people installing it and maintaining such installs. Most blogs on WordPress MU are created by users who never touch the backend, thus the Multi-User (MU) nature of the project. Many of them likely don’t even realize they are using WordPress MU and they certainly aren’t great candidates to help develop the project.

Instead, it becomes more important to reach out to the institutions and organizations that do use WordPress MU and have them help support the project both with code and monetary contributions.

In short, the WordPress MU community is always going to look different, in many ways, from the WordPress community. The two projects, though closely related, have very different targets and audiences. Though merging them does make sense in that the two have so much similar code in them, the problems they solve are, in most cases, very different.

That is why the debate about how to build and grow the WordPress MU community is legitimate and there are many questions I don’t have the answer to. However, I know that it won’t be helped by in-fighting. The only way any community survives is by working together and my hope is that everyone can put their disagreements aside, and become a team.

In the end, it seems that everyone is pretty much on the same side, just expressing different concerns. Hopefully all of this can be addressed without any further hostilities.

Recommended Reading

Part 1 and Part 2 of James Farmer’s interview here at the Blog Herald.

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  1. By matrimony posted on September 29, 2009 at 12:46 pm
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    Sounds like wordpress upgrade itself to the highest level.

    Reply

  2. By Adam W. Warner posted on September 30, 2009 at 8:33 pm
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    As an MU user, there have been some anxious moments during this discussion. I have made WP/WPMU a large part of my web development arsenal since version 1.5, and I give back to the community as much as I am able in the way of tutorials and helping others learn and use the software.

    If I had my way, I would keep WP and WPMU separate. As you’ve stated above, they serve two different purposes (strongly related of course). A merge of the two seems logical for organizational purposes, but I guess I feel that it would be serious overkill to the beginning WP user.

    When I first started using WP, it was some time before I discovered MU, then some time after that before I understood it’s real power. I feel as though I’ve “graduated” from the standard WP after much experimentation and experience. If I were to have the option of creating as many blogs as I’d liked right from the start, I can assure you, it not only would have been a complete mess, but it’s possible that I may have abandoned the software for something simpler.

    As I said, I’m a WP/WPMU user. As much as I’d like to be, I’m not a plugin developer or theme designer (although I have created a few themes), I’m a user…a hardcore user, and I depend on Automattic, Matt, people like James, and the WordPress community to provide not only the core software, but the extended development around it. I’m agreed with you above that the time for frustration and in-fighting is past. Let’s pull together as a community and come to a solution that will serve the best interests of all involved.

    Can’t we all just get along?

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  3. By blogger and wordpress tools posted on December 30, 2009 at 3:31 am
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    WordPress MU is really great, but if you ask me I would definitely keep WP and WPMU separate.

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