If you've been reading anything within the blogs-about-blogs world this week, there's one dominant topic: WordPress versus Thesis (or Mullenweg versus Pearson). If you haven't been following it, it's a fascinating story and I think it's very relevant to the way we think about what we do as breeders and as owners.
Here's the short version: WordPress, which is the platform this blog exists on and also forms the architecture for a whole bunch of blogs and sites that are actually important, exists under what's called a GPL, or general public license. The GPL that governs WordPress exists in order to keep it open for users to change or modify or build on in whatever way they wish. That's why you can get inside WordPress's code and (on your own site) either break it or improve it or modify it as much as you want, whereas something like Microsoft Word forbids that kind of thing.
Releasing a platform like WordPress under the GPL is a philosophical decision – it says that its owners don't agree with the concept of closed or proprietary code and believe that all users should be able to have free software – where "free" means freedom to use or change, not zero cost (though WordPress is free).
Part of the GPL says that if you build something that has its own function but uses code from the original platform – if you build a plugin for WordPress, for example – you have to also release it under the GPL. This makes the freedom inherited, and is – again – a philosophical choice. It says "Don't build for this unless you're willing to cede your power to the users."
Where the rubber has hit the road this week is in the issue of themes.
Themes are what tell the blog what it looks like to you, the reader. They're deeper than "skins" but some people refer to them the same way. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of themes out there that allow my blog to look different from Kate's blog or from Jeri's blog or from anybody else's blog.
Themes can be as simple as instructions for the text to show up in a plain white box or as complicated and useful as their own little programs. The one I'm using right now allows me to, for example, easily display certain pictures in certain ways, or not have certain pages or posts visible, and it does this by adding code to what WordPress is already doing.
The vast majority of all themes are released under the GPL, because their owners and developers consider them to be "derivatives" of WordPress. Plenty of those developers charge for the themes, especially if they add a ton of user-friendly functionality and support, but the deal is that once you own the theme you can tinker with it as much as you want.
So, for example, for this blog I started off with an off-the-shelf theme and then changed it like crazy so that it no longer looks like it did when I downloaded it. And I have the right to do this, even to go so far as to strip the theme of its identifying details (as being developed by Woo themes) and pretending that it's mine. And I could give my modified code to somebody else and they could install it and slightly modify it again and call it theirs. And so on.
Developers who work under the GPL make sales for slightly different reasons than Microsoft or Apple does. You're not paying for the software as much as you're paying for their expertise in making it really useful and in supporting it if you have problems. So, even though I could legally e-mail you code, you're probably going to just go spend the $40 to buy a theme yourself because there's a high chance that I've screwed up the code in some way and there's an even higher – approaching 100% – chance that I can't answer the questions you have about how the theme works.
Entering this arena is a person who did what many, many other developers have done – he built a theme for WordPress. It's called Thesis. And, by all accounts, it's a good theme. The huge difference is that he decided that his theme wasn't going to abide by the GPL; he was going to release it under a license a little more like Microsoft's or Apple's license. If you buy his theme as a single user, you must abide by his license terms. You can only have the theme installed on one website. You have to have his identifying footer. And you can't redistribute the code to anyone else.
In the world of blogs-about-blogs, this issue has mushroomed to an astonishing extent. What themes are, what derivatives consist of, whether themes are new works, whether themes can stand on their own, the rather astonishing revelation that big chunks of Thesis code are copied directly from WordPress's, and so on. It's become a big fat hairy deal.
I'm always interested by big fat hairy deals, but it would have remained on the edge of my awareness if it were not for the VERY unique response that Thesis's owner, Chris Pearson, gave to the accusations that he was violating the GPL.
He did NOT say "I am not violating the GPL, and here are my pieces of evidence one two three."
No, he said, "I don't care if I'm violating the GPL. The market has spoken."
In other words, because he was making so many sales, the market had blessed his decision and nothing else mattered.
I am sure there are people reading this nodding and saying, "Oh, an anarcho-capitalist," and I think you're right. In fact, I think you're so right that about the only thing that will ever resolve the above issue is litigation that tells Thesis's owner that he's not allowed to distribute under his own license; he is going to be completely impervious to any appeals to what is the "right" thing to do or what's respectful or anything else.
The more I thought about this, about how amazing his response was, how gleefully amoral it was, the more familiar it sounded.
How many times have you heard, when a terrible breeder is challenged on his or her practices, "I have a hundred happy puppy buyers." Or "I never have any trouble selling my litters." or "You're just saying that because you don't want me competing with you." or "People come to me because you expect them to jump through ridiculous hoops and sign their lives away."
These people will not ever actually address the issue – they never say "Yes, I do test my dogs and here's the evidence." Their response is one of market creating morality. Because they sold puppies, their actions are sound. Because they have no trouble getting checks made out to them, nothing else matters.
Michael Walzer, who has written a lot on how we think morally, said it this way:
Competition in the market puts people under great pressure to break the ordinary rules of decent conduct and then to produce good reasons for doing so. It is these rationalizations – the endless self-deception necessary to meet the bottom line and still feel okay about it – that corrode moral character.
To you as a good breeder, this should be front and center every time you sell a puppy. You are selling a puppy under a very specific license, if you will. You are saying that the puppy is the derivative of your breeding program – would not exist except for your input and your framework – and therefore decisions made about its future must be made under a set of actions you've set. The puppy must never be bred, must be shown, must be fed a certain diet, must be mated to a certain type of dog.
You are trusting that everyone around you understands the rules of the system, and wishes to work under your license. They've bought the puppy not because they couldn't get one free somewhere, but because you offer the predictability, education, and support that the free one doesn't come with.
But out there are a whole bunch of people for whom the market establishes the morality. They will buy one of your puppies and they will do whatever you want, sign anything you want, say anything you want them to say, with absolutely no intention of following it if there's a chance that they can make some money. And, when and if you confront them, their response will be the same as we've heard so many times – "I didn't have any trouble selling that litter. You just don't want me competing with you. You're just mad because I'm succeeding at this and you've failed."
So my question is – what should we do, as breeders, knowing this reality? Is there a way to more accurately assess buyers? Are there any real legal recourses that will actually protect the dogs – not just give us some money for misbehavior? Is there a way to come together as a community and share common goals – to write our "Dog GPL," as it were? How can we act, within our system, in a way that shows respect both for the creatures that we love and respect for (but with the knowledge of the frailty of) human nature? I think we have adequate legal recourse – we CAN, after all, always sue them – but doing so doesn't protect the dogs in the first place. That has to be the definition of success, not that we got paid after the fact for something that wrecked a dog or a breeding program. Is there a way to genuinely establish a morality that is not the market?