WordPress Targets Premium Designers for Deletion

In a page possibly taken from Microsoft’s crushing of Netscape, Automattic is using its WordPress theme directory to penalize the sale of customized blog designs.

“Themes for sites that support “premium” (non-GPL or compatible) themes will not be approved,” the WordPress.org theme directory now warns.

The removal affected about 35 percent of 700 free themes available from WordPress.org’s theme directory.

With many self-hosted blogs using the open-source WordPress platform created by Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg, removal from the WordPress.org theme directory is akin to an iPhone developer being striken from Apple’s Apps Store.

Like the App Store, which is linked to from every iPhone purchased, each copy of the WordPress software includes a link to the theme directory.

“Since Monday we’ve been clearing stuff out en masse,” Mullenweg told the Blog Herald Friday.

In a statement to bloggers that appeared designed to soften the mention of a ban on premium themes, Mullenweg said the deletions won’t affect designers who are “kosher with the GPL and don’t claim or promote otherwise on your site and theme.”

Mullenweg holds the unique position of being the creator, lead developer and chief spokesman for the free WordPress software while also running Automattic, a San Francisco, Calif.-based company striving to profit by selling services based around the free software.

Automattic is best known for WordPress.com, a free blog hosting service that competes with Google’s Blogger. Automattic also earns revenue by selling VIP services to companies and licensing Askimet, a blog spam catcher developed by Mullenweg.

A strong advocate of free software based on the Gnu Public License (or GPL), Mullenweg believes theme developers should not profit from designs that use WordPress software code.

Soon after the deletions became public, designers who had free GPL themes removed wondered if this latest move was more than strictly following the open-source philosophy.

“It would seem that Automattic is trying to phase out the premium-theme business altogether,” developer Justin Tadlock wrote.

Another premium theme developer, Nathan Rice, charged premium designers are being target because they are not GPL “zealots.”

“So, as far as I can tell, not only do they not like people selling themes (no shocker there), but they also don’t like it when you make 100% GPL, high quality themes, but you happen to either have a link on your site to a premium theme, or maybe you sell one,” wrote Rice in a comment on Tadlock’s site.

Rice note he found no call by the WordPress community to remove free themes developed by designers of “premium” themes.

Chicago,IL-based WordPress theme designer Brian Gardner has had to respond to questions about his move away from premium themes. After a very successful business selling his line of “Revolution” themes, Gardner suddenly adopted the services-based mind-think encouraged by Automattic.

In an Oct. blog post, Gardner wrote he flew out to San Francisco to meet Mullenweg and Automattic CEO Toni Schneider. The purpose:

“So we could ensure that our business model was in compliance with standards set forth by the authors of the GPL license as well as with WordPress.”

Rather than charge for the theme, Gardner’s new Revolution2 business gives away the themes (although provides only tiny, easily-overlooked download links) and charges between $99 and $149.95 per year for support.

“I decided that building my business around distribution of the themes and the services/customization that would result was the wiser route, and would ultimately prove more successful,” Gardner told Pro Blogging News.

“My decision to go open source was completely independent of anything
dealing with Automatic,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Gardner changed to the open-source model to retain his growing following. However, soon after making the switch, Mullenweg praised Revolution2 and made the commercial open-source theme service the sole theme advertising onWordPress.

The removal of premium-associated free WordPress themes appears to be the next step following last year’s deletion of sponsored themes by Mullenweg. While getting rid of sponsored themes did away with smaller designers dependent on ads to pay for design development, now the WordPress theme directory may have become the cudgel of choice to strike out against premium WordPress theme designers.

Post originally written by Ed Sutherland

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