One of the most difficult aspects of open source projects is money. Often times work is done on free time and project resources are paid for out of pocket. If you are really lucky you have some one who is paid by their company to contribute part of their time to project. Either way, the issue of money rarely goes away. It looks like Matt and WordPress are about to experience this in a very serious way.
Just a few days ago Matt announced the formation of WordPress Inc.. Virtually no details have be given out besides noting that Jonas Luster is the first employee of this new company. Naturally this raises several questions:
- What is going to be the official relationship between the WP project and WP Inc?
- How will the services and products that WP Inc. offer impact or relate to WP?
- Will WP Inc. be making a closed source version of WP?
- Are donations that were made to WP being used in any way to start WP Inc., or in any way
For the most part I’ve been perfectly happy not asking these questions, Matt seems like a decent guy and figured he’d try to more or less do the right thing. That situation seems to have changed. Over at Waxy.org there is an article about the WordPress site hosting search engine spam. In brief, there are entries at wordpress.org/articles/ that are nothing but pure search engine spam. And there are a lot of them, more than 100,000. Matt didn’t disclose this fact to the community, but did comment on it when it was brought up in the WP forum. Basically Matt was having a hard time keeping up with the money needed to keep things going and the donations weren’t covering enough of it. The forum thread is no closed, so everyone will have to voice their opinions on this somewhere else.
I’m disappointed that someone who should know better didn’t something so ugly on the web. I don’t like spam, I don’t want spam, and I sure don’t want more web sites spreading more spam. It is even more disappointing to see this happen in an open source project because the hope is that such projects have great deal of transparency. The last part of Matt’s comments also concern me:
… The money is used just like donations but more specifically it’s been going to the business/trademark expenses so it’s not entirely out of my pocket anymore.
It isn’t completely clear if donations are now being used to start WP Inc. or if only money from the spam is going to WP Inc.. Making money by spamming the web is wrong, it doesn’t matter if it is going to web the WP project or WP Inc., it is just wrong. If donations to the WP project are being used to start/fund WP Inc., well that doesn’t seem quite right either. Now there is a possible exception to this, if people who donated to the WP project are getting shares of WP Inc. then perhaps this would make things not look so bad.
I’m hoping this is something that Matt did in a moment of weakness (financial or otherwise) and moves quickly to fix the situation. Too bad he’s out of the country right now.
UPDATE 3:10pm 30 Mar 2005: Ug, it looks like things are even worse that then appeared originally, links to the spam articles are being cloaked on wordpress.org. I’m starting to feel dirty by the fact that I’m still using WP.
UPDATE 11:00pm 30 Mar 2005: There’s a response from WP Inc. employee #1, Jonas Luster. He doesn’t like everyone calling this spam, I think that is a mistake. You’ll have a hard time convincing most people that this isn’t spam, don’t even bother with that argument. He does touch on one aspect of the problem, Matt did this in such a way that it was hidden from WP users. I certainly would have not known about it waxy.org hadn’t mentioned it. Jonas’s claim that this isn’t spam because it doesn’t involve a third party is completely wrong, it does. It involves many Google users and everyone who has linked to wordpress.org, there by giving Matt the ability to do this in the first place.
It has been asked if this is worse than what Six Apart did when they changed their licensing. In some ways I think it is worse, at least Six Apart didn’t try to hide the fact that their licensing. On the other hand, WP is still open source and free. Difficult to call, but I bet there will be several comparisons and questions like this in the future.
UPDATE 11:30pm 30 Mar 2005: Something strange just popped into my head, would it be ironic if this issue got even more attention by being covered at CNET News.com, which is owned/operated by Matt’s employer, CNET Networks?
UPDATE 5:20pm 31 Mar 2005: New developments, Yahoo and Google have pulled the spam articles out of their index. The page rank Google gives to WP has dropped to almost nothing. This is also being covered by Slashdot (for better or for worse). Jonas also has another follow up entry about this.
Those who are complaining about the negative response seem to be focusing on the calls for transparency and that this wasn’t really spam (and therefore there wasn’t anything wrong with this). My complaints about the lack of transparency come from Matt’s attempt to do this without WP users knowing about it. Instead of making a big public call for support and help in keeping his projects going and listing search engine spam as one solution he could have saved himself some of the backlash that is coming from this move. As for not being spam, give me a break, that is all this is and that is why someone was willing to pay for these web pages. The folks who paid Matt for these articles are the same type of folks who try to post comment and trackback spam to my blog and send me hundreds of email spam everyday. It was spam, trying to avoid this term by calling it an “experiment” is an attempt to spin an obviously poor choice into to something less foolish.