copyblogger

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Copyblogger Brian Clark Leaves DIYThemes/Thesis Theme

A few weeks ago, Brian Clark of Copyblogger.com confided in me that he was leaving DIYThemes, and splitting paths from the embattled Thesis theme and lead developer Chris Pearson. He agreed to do an interview with me exclusively about this news. This is the entire transcript of that interview.

Technosailor.com: Brian, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Obviously, the timing of this announcement and interview are interesting considering the discussions that have been happening in the WordPress community as it pertains to licensing and DIYThemes, the creator of the Thesis theme. You’ve been with DIYThemes since its inception and have championed the theme. You’re leaving the company now. Can you describe the reasoning that has gone into this decision?

Brian: Chris Pearson and I have been discussing an amicable way to split for the last 3 months. The very public disagreements Chris recently had with Matt Mullenweg were ugly and embarrassing, but that’s beside the point.

The reason for the split is more fundamental than that one issue. For the last year Chris and I have had completely different opinions about the direction of the development of Thesis, the running of the company, and our relationship with the WordPress community. And there really hasn’t been any way to resolve those different opinions given that I’m the minority owner of the company and what he decides goes.

Technosailor.com: Well, when you say “our relationship with the WordPress community,” that’s got to mean the GPL issue, right?

Brian: That’s part of it, but also, fundamentally I think Chris really wants to build something new that has nothing to do with WordPress. Trying to force his development ideas into a WordPress framework creates a whole set of issues. I wanted him to go build his thing on a separate development track and simply be okay with Thesis being a great framework that extends the power of WordPress — because that’s what it was supposed to be.

As for the GPL, I took steps from the very beginning to make sure we never issued a license that was in contravention of the GPL. We used a membership concept since 2008 after I came on board. Our terms of service said you follow the rules of your Thesis plan and get the benefits of membership — support, updates, etc. If you don’t follow the rules, you get kicked out. It was never a problem, because most people are honest.

My last official act with DIYThemes was drafting the Thesis split GPL license after Matt Mullenweg publicly committed to suing Chris. I thought that was the right move for Thesis going forward, and Chris eventually saw the light. But we were going our separate ways no matter what.

Technosailor.com: There’s a lot more to the story than that regarding the GPL. I know the story because of our conversations over the years, but other people don’t. Can you elaborate?

Brian: Okay. At the very beginning, I was completely in the dark about the GPL. I’m a content guy — I’m busy writing and producing content, not following WordPress politics. But once Chris asked me to partner with him, I naturally had to educate myself. What I found out about the GPL didn’t make much sense, frankly, but it was the way things were with WordPress. So I made sure we never took an intellectual property position in our membership terms that opposed the GPL.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Matt Mullenweg made a big push for the major WordPress premium theme developers to expressly declare themselves GPL. I think Brian Gardner of StudioPress was the first to go along. About that time, I told Chris I saw no problem with going expressly GPL, since we’re selling way more than just code and again, most people in our particular market are honest.

Chris told me to go talk to Matt and Automattic CEO Toni Schneider about going GPL and being welcomed into the WordPress community with open arms. It’s important to remember that due to the Copyblogger audience and my personal relationships, we never needed the blessing of WordPress for marketing purposes. But Matt was offering prominent exposure on WordPress.org, so why not?

Long and short is, I spent a lot of time discussing things with Matt in the early summer of 2009. We had everything worked out. I went back to Chris and he said he had changed his mind and didn’t want to go GPL after all. I thought that was a mistake, and looking back, we started diverging on just about everything from that point forward.

Technosailor.com: Now, you’ve argued with Matt publicly about whether the GPL is even legally enforceable. How do you explain that?

Brian: Oh, don’t get me wrong – as a former attorney, I think the odds of the GPL being shot down in court in this context are pretty good. A lot of practicing attorneys think so too (if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, you can read this and this).

But the law is not the point. If you’re going to develop on a massive open source platform like WordPress, it makes sense to follow the rules of the community that’s developing it. If you don’t want to, go build on something else, or build your own thing. I see the point behind the philosophy of the GPL, and I’m fine with it. I don’t like people trying to assert that it is “the law” and that non-GPL developers are “breaking the law,” because that’s just not accurate.

The GPL is a license (a contract) that has never been judicially tested in the way WordPress says it applies, and that position probably wouldn’t survive a court case. But I got out of law because I hate litigation, so why would I want to fight about it? Just play according to the home court rules and you can still make money with a great offer.

Technosailor.com: So you’re selling your stake in DIYThemes or are you maintaining your interest and stepping away from daily operations and intervention? Is there an advisory role here or is the relationship done?

Brian: At first, around 3 months ago, we explored selling the whole company. Then I floated the idea of me buying Chris out along with some investors. Chris said he wasn’t interested. We finally settled on Chris buying me out over several months of installment payments. The paperwork was drawn up, Chris had a few minor questions, and he told me it was no problem getting it done by the end of July.

Apparently now Chris has changed his mind about that as well. So things are in limbo, but I no longer have any active role with DIYThemes, operational, advisory, or promotional. Like I said, my last official act was preventing him from getting sued by WordPress.

Technosailor.com: What’s the future then for Copyblogger? You have been running Thesis for as long as Thesis has been around. Do you continue doing that or move to a different framework?

Brian: We stopped using Thesis as a development platform for pending projects months ago. It’s perfectly fine for some people, but it doesn’t play well with WordPress enough for our needs. So I’m sure I’ll move Copyblogger to something else soon. And that was part of the reasoning for my departure — I can’t promote something I can’t use.

Technosailor.com: What about Scribe? Is that part of DIYThemes?

Brian: Scribe is a separate company with a different partner and has nothing to do with DIYThemes. It’s exceeding all my expectations after only 6 months and we’ll be releasing version 3.0 this month. So it’s not all doom and gloom. ;-)

Technosailor.com: Now that Thesis has gone Split GPL, do you feel like the damage that has already been done in the community can be fixed? Is it possible for Thesis to have the prominence and success it has had prior to the public “altercations”?

Brian: I don’t know. I just know I no longer have to wake up each morning worried about what “altercation” has broken out overnight. That’s a good feeling in itself. Life is too short to be involved in things that make you unhappy.

Photo Credit: Wendy Piersall

Revolution vs. Thesis: The Premium Theme Cage Match

Now that WordPress 2.6 has been released and you’ve got yourself upgraded (you have upgraded right?), you might as well take some time to spruce up that old dingy theme of yours and replace it with something attractive and practical.

If you can afford your own custom theme development, then by all means, do it. Nothing says professional like a completely unique theme that has been professionally designed with not only appearance, but functionality and practicality.

However, maybe you can’t afford a $3500 theme or maybe there is something that, out of the box does what you need.

While I won’t get into the merits of “premium themes” and if themes should ever be mass marketed AND paid products, I would like to do a compare and contrast on two separate premium themes by two very competent designers.

Revolution Theme

If you believe your WordPress powered blog is more than a blog, you probably want to check out Revolution Theme. Revolution currently has ten different variations designed with the intentions of various industries in mind. If you’re using WordPress more as a content management system and your business is in real estate, pro media, tourism, online magazine, sports, tech news or other corporate variety – Revolution might be the theme for you.

Brian Gardner, the creator of the Revolution Theme commented to me that he “developed the Revolution themes in order to take WordPress to a higher level ““ to stretch the capabilities, and to show that it can be used for so much more than a blogging platform.”

Indeed, we used the Revolution Pro Media theme over at The District of Corruption and found it to be very suitable for displaying all our content in a sexy way.

Revolution was not without its problems though.

For instance, the out of the box CSS is not compatible with Firefox 3 which handles the

1
float

property incorrectly. We were able to hack the CSS with a different solution. In addition, the video box on this particular theme assumes that video content is going to come from YouTube which is an incorrect assumption, in our opinion, with all the video formats available.

Also a problem with our use of the theme was the requirement for every post to have images attached to them via custom fields. We had to hack the theme files to not display images when no images are available.

Revolution Pro (which again is only one variant) offers few options for power users. It does offer a WordPress administrative page but jumps to vast conclusions that are probably not relevant to bigger publishers.

Picture 6.png

Revolution Theme is an incredible sexy and well designed theme from the code point of view. Semantics are paid attention to and the use of the WordPress API ensures that the theme will be compatible with WordPress for, likely, years to come. I would recommend that Brian does not rely on plugins to accomplish tasks. Include that code in the theme’s functions.php if the code is GPL and use an

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if( function_exixsts() )

check to find out if the extra code is needed.

The Revolution theme is available for as little as $79.95.

Thesis Theme

Unlike Revolution, Thesis comes in one variety. It is a good variety though. The brainchild behind the Thesis theme is Chris Pearson. Chris is never content just building a theme but making the theme as braindead simple for anyone to use in a wide variety of situations.

To that end, Thesis is mainly configurable directly from WordPress admin and I have yet to have to significantly modify the out of the box code base. Granted, I have not had the length of time with Thesis as I have with Revolution.

One of the things I get to do is maintain my church’s website, which was in desperate need of overhaul and maintenance. I did not want to spend tons of time on it as, let’s face it, I’m not paid to do so. ;-) Thesis allowed me to stand up new content, new organization and a completely different look and feel in less than an hour. There’s still work to be done, but Chris has done most of the work for me.

The key to this ease is the amazing configurability directly from WordPress admin. With the interface, I have granular control of my navigation elements, formatting of posts, ad and analytics software, etc.

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Thesis does not allow me to modify some of the basic layout rendering to my heart’s content, however. Fortunately, I could write little plugins to do little things like apply different CSS to elements but, as robust as it is, more could be done.

The Thesis theme only comes with one variety and it is available for $89.95.

Comparison Chart

Revolution Thesis Winner
Ease of Deployment (1-10) 6 8 Thesis
Variations 10 1 Revolution
Plugin Dependencies Yes No Thesis
Price $79.95 $89.95 Revolution
Support Forum Blog + Forum Thesis
CSS Firefox 3 Incompat Support for custom CSS Thesis
CMS-Friendly Yes Kinda Revolution

Winner: Thesis 4-3.

Both are great and Chris and Brian should be commended for providing great resources.

Added: I forgot to mention one thing that I really wish theme authors would do more of. The Thesis theme has some of this but it could use more. Hooks, people! Add hooks everywhere in a theme.

The main reason for this is that people who want to modify the behavior of a theme can do so without editing the theme at all if there are hooks built into the theme.