Notes on Blog Design Part II, or A Word About Cutline

Reading over my last post, it occurs to me that I should acknowledge a controversy swirling around the edges of the Cutline community. Earlier this year, some important figures in the WordPress leadership raised an alarm over what they called “sponsored themes”—themes that contain hidden paid links designed to game Google. Recently the flood of anger and outrage reached its crest when WordPress founding developer Matt Mullenweg decided to ban sponsored themes from themes.WordPress.net.

Now let me be clear. Cutline is not a “sponsored theme.” It doesn’t include any sponsored links (I double checked), it’s still available on themes.WordPress.net, and in fact Mullenweg himself uses the theme for one of his blogs.

But Cutline is owned by a for-profit company. Though released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license, after its sale by original designer Chris Pearson earlier this year, the theme is now owned by a web properties holding company named Splashpress Media. This is not a contradiction. It is a common misconception that works released under open licenses like Creative Commons or the GPL can no longer be owned or copyrighted. In fact they are very much owned and remain under copyright, and yes, these copyrights can still be bought and sold. The Creative Commons release simply means that the rights holder has made the works in question available under terms that put minimal restrictions on users. This is just the case with Cutline.

For now Splashpress says it will continue to develop the theme for the benefit of the community and that future versions will continue to be released under open licenses. We’ll see. I’m actually more concerned that my use of Cutline throws me into larger debates within both the WordPress community and the open source community in general over what constitutes “sponsorship”, when corporate involvement in open source projects is acceptable, and who decides these norms. These are fascinating questions and ones that continue to play out across the world of open source. For instance, as Ken, Olivia, and I, and now Connie have seen in our work on the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, and as the recent crisis over the future Thunderbird vividly demonstrates, these same questions are very much alive at Mozilla.

My immediate concern is that my use of Cutline not give people the wrong impression, that it not suggest I’m on the “wrong” side of these debates. I’m sure some people will view my use of a commercially-owned theme as proof that I’m not 100% on the right side of open source and open content. To those people all I can say is that I’ll do my best to stay true to the spirit of the commons, and as long as Splashpress plays nice, I’ll stick with what is really a fantastic, free and open product in Cutline. And if they start pushing ads at me and my audience or start limiting my use of Cutline or charging for it, I’ll just leave it for something else.

Correction (8/22/07): My friend Dan let me know that the sponsored links I describe above are not, in fact, hidden. They are simply buried within the theme and thus difficult for many users to remove.

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