Should Akismet Really Ship with WordPress?

Wow, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that, unfortunately I can’t blame the dictators here at WPMU.org for that, although you could perhaps understand if they were in fact responsible. The public outcry on the localization column alone could make a less secure man cry, and make James & Co. looking for a way out. They didn’t, which obviously came as a total shock to me – that was my exit strategy for Pete’s sake!

Speaking of which, who is this Pete? I’ll have to look that one, up, it is just one of those expressions that sticks and gets tossed around all the time.

Oh yeah, this is a WordPress site. I keep forgetting, as you no doubt have noticed. Enter the soapbox and a new potential shitstorm then.

Back in March WPTavern’s Jeff Chandler mused over whether Akismet, the excellent spam stopping plugin and service that Automattic runs, was free to use. The conclusion was yes, it was and is, although just for personal use. Old timers like myself will remember that this has been the case all along, probloggers have been expected to pay for using Akismet’s spam-munching servers all along. Not that I think many bloggers did nor do in any greater numbers, I keep reminding my clients that they need to shell out for these things. There’s the idea that Akismet is free for all, perhaps just because the plugin is.

I’m torn when it comes to Akismet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the service and recommend it (although this post on if it is really needed is interesting), but have done so with mixed feelings all along. The reason: The Akismet plugin ships with WordPress (along with the Hello Dolly plugin, which much like the default theme is meant to be a way to understand how plugins work).

Is it fair that Akismet ships with WordPress? Is it even in the user’s best interest?

I’m giving the WordPress core team, and Automattic, the benefit of a doubt here. I don’t think there is a nefarious plot to make a ton of money by sneaking in a promotional bit of code into the WordPress package.

But I think it’s wrong. Akismet shouldn’t be shipping with WordPress. In fact, I think there’s a problem with Automattic’s services and the open source part of WordPress in general. Look at the featured plugins on WordPress.org, a list often dominated by Automattic plugins like PollDaddy and Jetpack. Sure, they are great and stable, but it makes you wonder whether they’re the best alternative, doesn’t it?

I think it’s great that Automattic, and other companies too, make money out of WordPress in different ways. What I have a problem with is when there are unfair and unclear advantages. Like shipping the plugin for your commercial spam stopping service with open source software, an option I doubt being extended to TypePad AntiSpam and other solutions available.

I do realize that comment spam is a problem, but a much more fair solution would be to offer several alternatives as part of the setup process. Something like the Browse Happy concept but for spam plugins perhaps? That would be a lot more transparent and put some doubts to rest.

Because you know what, there was a company who used to roll like this, leveraging their monopoly position to gain an advantage. They are called Microsoft and the result was years or web browser dominance, despite the fact that their product was inferior.

That’s where that sour taste in my mouth comes from, and although I won’t compare Automattic to Microsoft, others might. All that is moot though, because this is all about doing what’s right and offering everybody a fair chance, not abusing whatever unique position you might have. I’m sure Automattic means well, but I think their position makes them vulnerable to badwill when it comes to these things. That hurts WordPress too.

Oh, and Pete is probably St Peter, used as a variation for “for Christ’s sake”. On that note, let’s wrap this up with Bruce Springsteen’s “Outlaw Pete”.

Spam with bacon image by Paulo Ordoveza (CC) and the spam bus by Jeremy Noble (CC)

Comments (33)

  1. I prefer to use anti-spam tools that do not involve calls to other servers. Since I am on a budget, I am also very careful how many paid plug-ins and services I use.

    The WP Spam Free plug-in covers most of what I need though I am evaluating Antispam Bee as it was mentioned above.

    Bundling Akismet, or any other plug-in or theme, gives that software an unfair advantage.

    Every public blog needs some sort of anti-spam tool. Rather than bundling something with WordPress I’d rather see a list of top plug-ins included with the install instructions.

  2. Bang on chap. You only have to look at how issues such as this one are handled to see that Automattic, as a commercial entity profiting from WordPress yield far too much power over the development of WordPress.

    It seems as though the whole “community” development aspect of WordPress is being replaced with a near complete autocracy.

    Have a read of chapter 2 of The Revolution Will Be Digitised by Heather Brooke where she talks about hackerspaces. Keep WordPress in mind while you do and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

  3. I’m not sure that I agree that this is a bad thing. Akismet is a service and the plugin provides access to that service. The plugin is free (both in cost and source code) but the service is not if you’re a commercial concern.

    Open source is designed to give everyone a chance to build software and package it up the way that they want. If the WordPress team wants to include some plugins then that is their right.

    Does that fact that Akismet is shipped with WordPress give it an unfair advantage? Perhaps. But changing it out is very easy so I don’t see it being a big issue. What’s stopping other plugin builders from bundling their own plugins with WP installs and offering them to the public? It’s all GNU code so go for it.

    I would be upset if WP would only run with Akismet installed. But the fact is that it’s an optional piece and can be removed and replaced quite easily.

    • “If the WordPress team wants to include some plugins then that is their right.” Yep, absolutely, but this is a plugin developed by Automattic, not the WordPress team. That’s why it’s unreasonable to bundle it.

      “Perhaps. But changing it out is very easy so I don’t see it being a big issue.” So by the same token we should be able to bundle WPMU DEV’s Anti-splog plugin which could easily be provided for free but it’s main feature won’t work without a $79 membership.

      • Philip, you’ve raised some good points, but given the close ties between WordPress and Automattic it does make sense. I’m not sure how involved Matt is with the WordPress core now since I don’t follow it too closely, but given that Matt is the father of WP I’d say that it is natural that some of his plugins would be part of the distribution.

        And if WPMU DEV wants to create a distribution of WP that includes their plugins then they have every right to make such a distribution. It doesn’t matter if the plugin requires a membership for it to work or not. The GPL allows it. Users who don’t want it don’t have to use it, just like Akismet.

        I can understand that people don’t want to use Akismet because it has a cost when used commercially. But I don’t think that is a valid reason for having it pulled from the standard distribution.

        • The history of WordPress is of no consequence. The fact is Automattic are using their monopoly position on WordPress development to push a commercial service that puts profit in their back pockets.

          Whether it’s allowed under the GPL or not, it’s unethical.

          • Actually, in this case the history does have some bearing. Including Akismet is a way for the people of the WP community to support the guy who put his heart into WordPress.

            There may be some politics going on behind the scene that I’m unaware of though. Perhaps Matt is applying pressure somehow to have Akismet included. But without evidence to that I’d assume that the plugin is there so that beginners who are just starting out have a decent antispam right out of the box and Matt gets a bit of reward for the hard work he has put in.

            You used the word “monopoly” to describe Automattic. I’m not sure that applies. Unless you’re talking about the historical relationship that Matt has with WordPress, but that isn’t a monopoly. There is nothing that stops someone from taking the source code and making their own. And they can keep on taking the latest WP, tweaking it as they see fit and redistributing it. So no one is being held hostage.

          • “There is nothing that stops someone from taking the source code and making their own.”
            I wish people would stop wheeling that argument out – it’s pathetic. Yes, they could but no-one is seriously going to go anywhere other than WordPress.org to download WordPress!

            Automattic employs developers who sit on the core team at WP. When all is said and done, they do Matt’s bidding. If Matt wants Akismet to stay because it benefits Automattic’s bottom line (which it does) then it’ll stay. That goes against everything the “community” is supposed to stand for.

  4. Hi Philip

    I guess we’ll just have to disagree about this. You’re obviously very passionate about what open source should be and I disagree with you. You’ve used some pretty heavy words in your comments — “monopoly”, “unethical” and “pathetic”.

    If some of the big names in WP brought out their own distribution (e.g. WPMU Dev, Yoast to name two that stand out, I’m sure you can think of many others) they could develop a following. I’ve also seen a WP distribution that has been customized to start off as a more secure platform. Whether it will take off or not remains to be seen. But someone did it, so “it can be done” isn’t a pathetic argument. Rather than complain, they did something about it.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with people using open source software to make profits. I know that purists don’t like it, but we live in the real world where families need to be fed, servers need to be powered and stuff like that. It would be nice to be able to write code (or anything for that matter) and not have to charge for it.

    The bulk of the WordPress core is produced by Matt and staff of Automattic. I’d say that gives them the right to lobby heavily as to what goes into the distribution. If others want to up their contribution levels or fork it in a new direction that would give them more say about it.

    I say that we should just be thankful that we have such an amazing platform to build on and stop griping about minor things that we don’t like about it.

    • “There is absolutely nothing wrong with people using open source software to make profits.” I absolutely agree, and that’s exactly what I do every day.

      I just have a problem with a commercial entity using free software as a marketing tool for there own services in the way Automattic do. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.

  5. I find this whole thing incredibly interesting and how so many people continue to give WordPress, Automattic and Matt a free “pass”.

    Let’s keep our emotions out of the picture and look at some facts.

    Mystery Product:
    1) ships with another product to provide a separate function.
    2) NOT the best tool for the function it serves
    3) causes user choice-inertia because a “solution” already exists making other options available in the market place less likely to be adopted
    4) provided by a company who is openly for-profit.

    What’s the product? Akismet or Internet Explorer?

    If it’s Akismet, I can add the follow 2 lines where I CAN’T with IE:

    5) directly generates revenue for the company
    6) ships with a product based on philosophy of choice and freedom.

    It’s called anti-competition, and there’s a reason why Microsoft and others have had their knuckles rapped over it. There are laws against this sort thing – the same things that govern the GPL that everyone is so ready to lash out with. You defend the principles upon which WordPress is founded, or you don’t.

    You can’t pick and chose because you don’t like the consequences.

    Giving a pass to Automattic just because of “community blah blah” and “open source blah blah freedom blah blah” is simply a double-standard.

    Paul.

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