GPL, History
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A brief history of WordPress

Many have written accounts of the birth and growth of WordPress. For example, there’s a punchy timeline in the WordPress codex, an interesting 10 year visual history on WPMU DEV and interesting posts on WPExplorer, WPBeginner and Kinsta WordPress Hosting. An even richer account is likely to be released soon, as certain WordPress aficionados are currently writing “a new book about the history of WordPress drawing on dozens of interviews with the original folks involved and extensive research”.

For the purposes of this blog, I don’t need to explore the history of WordPress in the same level of detail (and it’s best that I leave that to the historians and others). It does help, though, to set out a few key points about WordPress’s development as well as the nature and roles of Automattic Inc and the WordPress Foundation. They help one understand the origins of the WordPress software, the legal structure around WordPress and its licensing, the relationship between WordPress and and the relevance of the WordPress Foundation. In addition, the origin of the WordPress software is relevant to some of the spats I mentioned in My WordPress story, whilst the legal structure around WordPress and its licensing is relevant to a range of significant issues that have excited debate within the WordPress community (topics I’ll address in later posts).

From 2003 to 2014

As explained on, “WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPLv2 (or later)”. Significantly, it was the official successor of b2/cafelog, so let’s start there.

b2/cafelog was launched in 2001 by Michel Valdrighi. It was described as a “classy news/weblog tool (aka logware)” that worked like this:

“You type something and hit ‘blog this’ and in the next second it’s on your page(s). You can write extended entries, or even entries that span multiple pages. You can also use BloggerAPI clients to post to your b2 weblog.

What’s original in b2? Pages are generated dynamically from the MySQL database, so no clumsy ‘rebuilding’ is involved. It also means faster search/display capabilities, and the ability to serve your news in different ‘templates’ without any hassle.”

Sounds familiar right?

In 2003 Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little forked b2 and created WordPress: the beginning of a beautiful thing that in time would come to power up to 23% of the world’s websites. Since 2003, we have seen (among many other things) introduction of the WordPress plugin architecture (2004), introduction of the theme system and static pages (2005), widgets, tagging and pretty URLs (2007), several new and improved user interfaces (2007-2014), custom post types and multisite (2010), post formats (2011), the theme customiser and previewer (2012), built-in audio and video support and improved security measures (2013) and live widget and header previews (2014). In a nutshell, WordPress just keeps getting better and better. And let’s not forget about the WordPress codex: it contains an incredible amount of useful support documentation across all manner of topics.

WordPress and the GPL

Like b2/cafelog, WordPress is (and had to be) licensed under the GPL (the well-known acronym for the “GNU General Public License”). Its codebase has been developed and contributed to by a wide range of developers around the world, meaning that no single person or company owns the WordPress software that is available on It is perhaps as open source as open source can be.

I’ll have more to say about WordPress and the GPL in later posts.

Automattic Inc

In 2005, Matt Mullenweg and others founded Automattic Inc. According to a SiliconBeat article at the time, Matt wanted “to launch a company that could provide the necessary clout and support for the WordPress software and the newer [platform]” that provides free hosting for WordPress sites as well as a range of paid upgrades and business offerings. Today Matt describes Automattic as “the secret force behind, Akismet, Gravatar, VaultPress, IntenseDebate, Polldaddy, and more”.

As I’ll discuss in more detail in a later article, Automattic also registered a range of WordPress-related trademarks. As noted above, though, it doesn’t own the copyright in all the code that comprises WordPress as we know it today. The software is community owned, whilst Automattic is the commercial vehicle through which Matt and many others support and leverage WordPress, with its most well-known business being the platform. (I don’t propose, in this post, to go into the differences between and but, for those interested in the subject, I recommend WPMU Dev’s vs A Definitive Guide For 2014.)

The WordPress Foundation

The other point to note in relation to legal structure is that, a number of years ago now, Matt founded the WordPress Foundation, “a charitable organization … to further the mission of the WordPress open source project: to democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software”. The Foundation went public in January 2010. Its website describes its raison d’être as follows:

“The point of the foundation is to ensure free access, in perpetuity, to the software projects we support. People and businesses may come and go, so it is important to ensure that the source code for these projects will survive beyond the current contributor base, that we may create a stable platform for web publishing for generations to come. As part of this mission, the Foundation will be responsible for protecting the WordPress, WordCamp, and related trademarks. A 501(c)3 non-profit organization, the WordPress Foundation will also pursue a charter to educate the public about WordPress and related open source software.”

(I’ll say a bit more about the reference to trademarks in a later post.)

Wrapping it all up

So that’s it for my brief history of WordPress. In a nutshell, WordPress was a fork of b2/cafelog and, like b2/cafelog, is licensed under the GPL. It has evolved dramatically since its humble beginnings in 2003, so much so that it now powers up to an incredible 23% of the web. Matt and others founded and operate Automattic Inc to support the WordPress software, and other ventures and Matt founded the WordPress Foundation, a non-profit organisation, to further the WordPress mission and protect WordPress for future generations. As I said in my opening post, thank you.

(Thanks to Tom Marcello for his image of Dexter Gordon and Benny Bailey from 1977, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.)

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