I think, before I get started, I need to help clarify a few things here, so you can understand the background of the story.
In the WordPress firmament you have two products sharing a trademark:
- a hosted blogging service which is known as WordPress.com and
- an open source blogging software package for self-hosted websites – generally known as WordPress.org.
This situation is, in itself, massively confusing – many people are confused as to the two products, and the relationship between them. The WordPress.org product is a largely technical product, of which the majority of core contributors just happen to be Automattic employees. The WordPress.com product is one which makes use of WordPress and many dozens of free open source themes and plugins in order to create a commercial blogging platform.
So, with that, we have a somewhat complex branding problem, but one where all the power and decision making rests with Automattic.
So why did I decide to write this piece?
First I want to make it clear that by and large I believe that Automattic, its founder Matt Mullenweg, and WordPress.com have been a very very good thing for the WordPress project. My rationale in writing this piece is to help make sure that this continues to be the case—questioning motives is important, always, because without questions we can never know if we’re going the right way.
WordCamps are now a controlled brand
WordCamps are community run WordPress related events run along similar lines to BarCamps—in essence free flowing, informal ‘unconferences.’ They are friendly events where people at all levels can share information and learn. These were once something anyone could opt to run, but are now somewhat more controlled and require prior approval to go forward with.
WordCamp UK is just such an event, and run successfully and with growing numbers of speakers and attendees since 2008. This year’s 2010 event was a success in spite of some legal issues (the setting up of a non-profit organisation to manage these events in the UK) which meant that tickets could not be offered more than a couple of weeks before the event.
However, at the end of this year’s event Jane Wells, who helps run the WordCamp side of things, was chatting with everyone and came up with a revelation that caused disquiet in the room—she stated very firmly that we could no longer call our events “WordCamp UK.” They could have city names, but national names such as WordCamp UK, New Zealand or Netherlands would not be allowed to use the WordCamp name. WordCamps, she said, are local, grassroots events. If there was a national event, some people could be dissuaded from running a local event and she felt that this would be a bad thing. That’s her opinion, and she is of course entitled to it.
Sadly, there was a danger in this. In situations where your average British are about to lose something they hold dear to them, they tend to react in one of two ways—with a great deal of anger, or with apathy. The scale of response depends, largely, on what will make the most difference. Anger works well with people who listen, but there’s a feeling in the WordPress community that Automattic don’t really listen. They talk, and they discuss, but once a decision is made the company tends to plough on regardless. We’ve all seen this with the capital_P_dangit function that caused an uproar, broke sites, and remains in core.
So as a consequence, I felt that the danger here wasn’t the anger that Jane Wells initially faced in that room (and trust me, it was anger and it wasn’t pretty). The real danger, and I said this to her, was the massive British capacity for general apathy and disinterest. After all, WordCamps are important to us, but not that important. To the British person, if Automattic (or, as they will claim we should talk about, the WordPress Foundation) will stomp on any attempt to run a WordCamp UK then there’s no point fighting—just give up and find something else to do with your time.
And now, moving on to the organisation for a WordCamp [UK city name] 2011 we’ve had a request for bids for events to be run under the same umbrella as all past events but without the national branding.
Sadly, by the bidding deadline, the 2011 event has had just one bid, for Leeds. Consequently the deadline was extended and it’s all still a bit vague right now. There simply isn’t a mad rush of individuals looking to devote weeks of their time to running a WordCamp. Partly, I suspect, because the kudos of running a WordCamp UK is much more significant than a WordCamp Bristol or a WordCamp Lower Peover.
The motivation for running a WordCamp is actually pretty thin—it raises your profile, but that’s about it. And most people don’t need or want their profile raising. You don’t make money running a WordCamp (and maybe you’re not expected to do so anyway) and there are all sorts of issues and problems that you need to address. You can be dealing with quite large amounts of money, and there are risks—what if you book a large hall and nobody turns up and you lose money? Will the WordPress Foundation help you out? Unlikely at the moment, but they’ll cheerfully take your surplus.
So, instead I will apply a little thinking that my reading on economics has taught me—that you should consider what the likely motivations are in order to achieve an idea of why things are like they are. So let’s do that. Step by step.
I’m also going to phrase this as if everything is driven by Automattic—largely, because it is. The WordPress Foundation, the WordPress project, and the WordCamp brand are all led up by the same person—Matt Mullenweg. He may be an angel, but we have to assume that actually he’s human, just like the rest of us.
The WordCamp desire
So, why would Automattic wish WordCamps to be grassroots, local, and very much run along unconference models? The UK one, incidentally, being filled with more professional bloggers and developers and not really following this model.
I can think of a few possible reasons:
- Grassroots blogging is going to be much more about people who would use WordPress.com rather than self-hosted WordPress.org blogs. Perhaps there is a feeling that local events would help the WordPress.com product more than large national events which are largely run by and for WordPress professionals?
- Automattic have come to realise that professional conferences are a huge money-spinner. At my company Interconnect IT one of our primary clients makes a huge proportion of its money from running conferences. Perhaps Automattic have plans for higher level conferences for professionals from which they can profit? In fact,
- The WordPress Foundation stands to gain from donations made from profits that are made by WordCamps being donated back in. This will, in theory, help to drive the WordPress project forward but at the moment the foundation’s true aims and constitution aren’t well understood by anyone other than Matt Mullenweg himself—he is, in effect, the dictator for life in this.
None of these are in any way morally questionable, incidentally, and I prefer not to judge. I’m just trying to look at the motivations behind the decisions.
So what are Automattic up to?
You have to realise that primarily Automattic are a commercial company—their duty to their shareholders is to make money. That’s it. They can also add a few other things to their articles—for example, that the money has to be made whilst contributing socially, or to help fund Matt’s travel desires, or to further the world of blogging. But first, it’s about money.
And their shareholders have put a lot of money in—at the last count the company has received a tad over $30m dollars of funding. This is hard to confirm empirically, but various news reports suggest that this is public knowledge.
$30m needs to be made. And Automattic’s primary products are given away free—the WordPress project itself, to which they provide the greatest contribution, is free. WordPress.com in its basic form, free. They have advertising on WordPress.com blogs that is so subtle most of its users are unaware of its existence. There are also various upgrades. But where I suspect money is to be made is in the selling of professional grade services—these, like VIP Hosting and Support, are high-margin items. $500 a month for hosting in a clustered environment and $15,000pa for the cheapest support package are very much at the enterprise end of the scale.
As I understand it, a significant number of the new hires appear to be working on VIP customers, with WordPress development taking place in downtime.
All of this is probably what brings the money in. And all of it revolves around the WordPress trademark. Thing is, the WordPress trademark doesn’t justly belong to Automattic. The project was always a community one with thousands of contributors. As far as I can tell (and I ain’t no lawyer) the GPL as applied to WordPress means that every contributor has a share in this trademark.
Which is incredibly awkward for a commercial company.
The community dance
The consequences of a commercial company dancing with a GPL project are complex, and not ones I’ll go into here, but the key thing is that an awful lot of people feel a sense of ownership. If the company antagonises the contributors they stand to lose an awful lot of contributions. So they need to let the community continue to feel this way. Matt’s answer was to create the WordPress Foundation.
Sadly, it’s not yet a proper answer, because it’s a pure dictatorship. He’s said this himself. He also happens to be the most important person at Automattic and the founder member. As a consequence, the feeling for many will be that WordPress is still 100% under the control of Automattic.
That could work, but with all but one core contributor being an Automattic employee, no open committee, no open membership scheme of the foundation, and no clear roadmap the feeling within the community may still turn.
A fork would be dangerous for Automattic, because that would dilute the perceived value of their VIP offerings. Automattic do after all claim to be the creators of WordPress. Yet the trademark confusion is inherently dangerous to the open source ideals of the original WordPress project. You can sign up to WordPress.com and use features that are simply not available anywhere from WordPress.org. There is already an element of bifurcation between the two products and we at Interconnect IT have had our own problems with explaining to clients moving from .com to .org that some features they are used to simply can’t be added cheaply.
We’re stuck with the branding confusion, I believe, because there’s no real alternative for Automattic and the WordPress Foundation. They could turn the foundation into something that really is more than simply another Matt project by allowing contributing companies and individuals to be involved in its running, but then that would cede too much control and introduce new risks that wouldn’t make Automattic’s investors happy.
Automattic do after all claim to be the creators of WordPress.
It’s even debatable whether it makes that much difference on the ground. Most WordPress users never attend any sort of event about the software, and most don’t care about the trademarks, the licenses, or anything else. For them it’s enough that it’s good and free.
The only area where folk get jumpy are those that have built significant businesses around the platform. There’s no real partner network (and it’s still waaaay too small an application to have one) or other vendor support system such as those operated by bigger software companies. Automattic is still small fry—sixty employees is about the same as a typical large web company you’ve never heard of. And that’s what we must remember—their exposure is huge, but we can’t expect them to be perfect or to know every answer when it comes to brand, vendor and product management. As someone running a business based around WordPress all I can do is to make sure I mitigate any potential problems that may come up in the future.
And if I were in Matt’s shoes, what would I do? Well, I’d do two things. Once the trademark has finally moved to the WordPress Foundation, I would grant a license in perpetuity to use it for the purposes of marketing WordPress.com and ancillary services. This is quite a common situation for many trademark holders, and helps give business stability to the users of those trademarks. I would then seek to open up the foundation—give it a board made up of the key movers and shakers in the world of WordPress. They wouldn’t necessarily be people you’d heard of, and the criteria could be tough. With the right voting structure and membership requirements decisions could still be made quickly. Commercial interests could be represented by ‘paying in’ or they could be represented by the level of contributions made. Community interests could be represented by a weighted election of those who actively contribute.
Of course, this foundation would need a staff to manage it, to gather and deal with votes, and to distribute funds where necessary. It could pay for a good number of developers, and it would open up the decision making processes behind the project. It could also be careful in explaining the trademark issues and licensing deals in order to help users understand the situation properly. Nothing would be diluted, and Automattic would be the name at the top simply on the basis of the scale of their contributions to the codebase, so they would maintain their position as one of the primary movers in the project.
Let’s make no bones about this—Automattic has been a wonderful thing for the WordPress community at large. It’s just important that they don’t confuse the situation and make themselves potentially look like bad guys even when they’re not.
Do all this and you’d still have arguments, of course, but could this all help to clarify the situation and to make WordPress feel like a community project once more? Comments please!