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Are Premium WordPress Plugins/Themes Unethical?

GNU Public License MascottBecause of the recent commotion in the WordPress community about the ethics of selling premium WordPress themes, I would like to stir things up by voicing my opinion about this topic.

I know you are thinking, “Who are you? Why should I care what you have to say about it?” To tell you the truth I’m just a regular WordPress junkie who has written some successful plugins and articles on WordPress (and of course some unsuccessful ones). I believe that I’ve dealt with GNU Public License (GPL) enough to both love and hate it.

Background

You probably know that WordPress is an open source blogging platform licensed under GPL. This means that all derivative works and extensions (themes and plugins) are also forcefully licensed under GPL themselves.

GPL purists argue that it is definitely unethical to charge for premium offerings and license it under a different license. Others (like me) believe that this is a gray area and we cannot apply the GPL by the book to every plugin/theme here.

My take as a non-premium plugin/theme developer

Currently I do not develop any premium WordPress plugins or themes, but I still believe that not all premium WordPress plugins and themes are unethical. Here are my reasons why some of them are perfectly ethical (and legal):

  1. Premium plugin and theme authors are really not selling the code when they charge for a plugin/theme. They are selling their support and service as these plugins/themes need regular updating. To keep to the true spirit of GPL, these plugins and themes are available for free download and tinkering (fully under GPL). The code just won’t be officially supported by the author until you pay the premium.
  2. Sometimes these plugins/themes are mini applications themselves. Also in some cases, the plugin or theme is not using any WordPress functions. That means CSS files, images, javascript files, and any code that does not use any WordPress function calls (e.g. using direct MySQL calls instead of going through $wpdb) do not fall under GPL. In a sense, some themes are standalone website templates. This means that at least some parts of the themes and plugins can have a non-GPL license.
  3. Most people develop a plugin/theme when they see a lack of feature that somebody else can benefit from. Once they finish developing it, GPL says that anybody can just copy the code or idea and release it as their own. Though GPL-gurus believe that idea and code sharing is frowned upon if it’s just one-way sharing [copying], GPL says that this behavior is perfectly allowed. So after the idea gets stolen, what does the original author get in return for working so hard on something that benefited the community? Nothing but good will that is soon forgotten. Users should think of premium charges as a “suggested” donation for developing something that has benefited them (Also: if it doesn’t benefit them then why use it?).

What would I do?

If I can have everything my way, I believe that there should be a compromise license for WordPress plugins and themes that both rewards the original developer and also adhere to the full spirit of open source software.

My idea of a compromise license would be that the original developer retains rights for “selling” (but not rights to “no derivative works”). Any derivative works will be forced to be GPL compliant, so copycats cannot just copy the code and sell it for personal profits. Also similar to new pharmaceutical research, the original developer will hold the right to sell this plugin/theme for a certain amount of years (new medication research gets 10 years I think). Then afterward, the original plugin/theme automatically becomes GPL compliant and the original author can no longer charge for the plugin/theme. I think it is easy to implement such a tracking system if we have a big brother like WordPress repository that records the date-of-birth of each plugin and theme.

It seems like my previous suggestion is not a viable solution per my update point #1 below.  Back to the drawing tables for me.

Bottom line

As a developer, I believe that we are entitled to some rights and rewards. If we keep getting nothing in return then most of us will inevitably stop coding and supporting free software (and go work for some big corporation or start consulting – yuck!). I also believe that it is unethical that 200+ GPL themes were removed from the WordPress theme repository because the theme authors also sold premium themes on their site. On the other hand Allister Cameron wrote a very analytical post about this matter that may help you understand the removal of these themes (definitely worth a read). Even if that’s the case, I truly believe that some of the removals had to be mistakes (if so contact Matt Mullenweg!).

I would really love to hear your opinion about this matter. Rest assure that I never delete comments with substance even if it is an opposing comment. Speak your mind!

Update 12/19/2008

After listening to the WordPress Weekly Matt Mullenweg interview, I’ve gained a better understanding in this matter.  I want to share them with you:

  1. Nowhere in GPL does it say that you cannot charge people for your software (plugin/theme).  The four freedoms of GPL are: using, studying, copying, and distributing modifications of the code. “$0” freedom is none of them.
  2. If you buy a GPL plugin/theme, modify it to your needs, and intend to not distribute it, your software does not have to be licensed under GPL.  Similar to this, if you offer consulting or services to a client to work on GPL software, client will not violate GPL by licensing it differently if they do not distribute it.
  3. Building on number 2, if you consult or service a GPL software for a client, you have no obligations to make sure that your client is adhering to GPL.  This is because you are selling your services, not GPL software.

After realizing everything, the only unethical plugins/themes are the ones that restrict your freedom to use, study, copy, and distribute with modifications the code.  A good example of an unethical theme would be a theme that has a back link (pointing to the author’s site) in the footer and the author tells you that it is a violation to remove that back link.  This violates the freedom of modification of GPL.  Another example is premium themes selling single use and multiple use licenses.  According to GPL, you should be able to buy the “single-use” license and be able to legally use it multiple times on multiple sites.

If you really think about it, GPL is quite simple and there should be no debate.  Confusion arouse from people not understanding GPL, or from people trying to create loop-holes/made-up-gray-areas for personal gains.  I hope this clears up a lot of the muddy waters in this subject.  Lastly as one of the person on the podcast said, “Let’s stop arguing and get back to work.”  It is just what it is.

25 Responses to “Are Premium WordPress Plugins/Themes Unethical?”

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  1. Sid Savara

    I think it’s fine to have premium themes. I also agree with WordPress providing a GPL only theme directory – it’s their website, they can do what they want with it.

    The whole Revolution theme going GPL was very interesting: I think perhaps they looked at the numbers and decided that if we open source it and provide only support etc, we can make more money.

    One of my favorite products that is similar to what Revolution is doing is JFreeChart. Their source code and libraries are free – but if you want code examples and their guide, that costs money – and if you want a truly professional looking chart, it is worth paying for the guide.

  2. Ty Bone

    @Sid Savara
    Nice to see you dropping by again :). You are right about WordPress repository having the right to do what they want with it (i.e. post only GPL compatible themes that link to the author’s website which has *only* GPL themes). The thing that bothers me is that if the author satisfies these requirements, but has any 3rd party advertisements selling premium non-GPL themes, then the author’s GPL theme will also get removed from the repository.

    It seems to me that advertisements should not count. On the other hand, if we really want to stick to the true spirit of GPL, then we shouldn’t take money from those advertisers in the first place. It’s a tough decision.

  3. Susan

    I think having premium themes keeps pushing the envelope of what wordpress can do. It’s these talented designers that take more time to code some of the most beautiful websites/blogs and really help wordpress.org in the long run.

  4. Ty Bone

    I agree. People who code for money have an obligation to deliver their best.

  5. t31os

    Depends on the person, if money is an incentive for you, then so be it….

    Some people code and create good work because they like to share and the praise that comes with it…

    If you ask me money is a seperate issue, though unfortunately money seems to drive some people.

    If you're coding for WordPress to make money, then perhaps you should rethink your strategy, you're trying to profit from a non-profit natured community, do you not see the irony there.

  6. Ty Bone

    A lot of people make money off of WordPress by providing consulting services & theme/plugin support. I agree that selling premium theme is a bunch of bull because you should be able to legally get the same code from anybody else per GPL. I agree with selling theme support and services though. That's the model that Brian Gardner uses: give away premium themes for free, but charge for theme support.

  7. Sid Savara

    Fair point about blurring the line too much about what constitutes “commercial”

    I mean, ALL GPL themes in some way benefit their author. What if I am a pro blogger, and I advertise my services for sale on my site – should I now be banned as well? How is that any better than those selling themes on their site?

    I agree with your point – as long as the theme itself is GPL, I see no reason why they should be removed just for also having premium themes for sale.

  8. Ty Bone

    @Sid
    I forgot to comment on your previous statement:

    The whole Revolution theme going GPL was very interesting: I think perhaps they looked at the numbers and decided that if we open source it and provide only support etc, we can make more money.

    I’m not sure if it was a marketing/sales move though. To me, it seems to me like that is the only thing Brian Gardner can do to be able to fully honor GPL and not start bad blood with Matt Mullenweg/Automattic. (I respect him for doing so!)

  9. Jeffro2pt0

    That point was raised time and time again during and after the show. The bottom line is, if the theme on the repository is fully compliant with GPL and the credit link points back towards a site that openly supports or advertises non-gpl stuff, Matt does not want that on the repository. Why should he allow that type of advertising to be presented to his community through the theme repository? However, Matt did state that the removals would be done with reason so if anyone is unsure if they meet the new guidelines, they can send the theme repository guys an email to see if their theme, site is compatible.

  10. Ty Bone

    @Jeffro2pt0

    I wasn’t aware of Matt’s intentions for the WordPress theme repository in the first place. After listening to the various clarifications in your WordPress Weekly podcast, I have a lot more respect for the guy (THANK YOU for coming up with those wonderful questions) and after being aware of his intentions, I truly understand the basis for these theme removals.

    I also feel that if the premium theme developers are not happy with the new guidelines, but still want to be re-included into the repository, then they should just make the necessary modifications and contact Matt for re-entry. Matt is such a standup guy. I’m almost certain that he will definitely give them a second chance if they follow the new guidelines.

  11. Jeffro2pt0

    Unfortunately, changing ones business model is hard especially if it is bringing food on the table. The good news is if you want to call it that is Matt, nor anyone else is forcing those people to change their business model. Matt has stated that they do not plan on pursuing legal action against those who violate their license. The difference here though is that if you’re a theme author who sells themes with restrictions, single use licenses, etc. you are violating the GPL and thus, you will not receive support from either Matt or anything under the WordPress.org umbrella.

    And the point has to be made just for the sake of making it, Matt is not against anyone making money through or off of WordPress. He would just like to see it done in a way that honors the GPL.

    By the way,some of those questions were ones I retrieved from the community as they are affected most by these guidelines. I did come up with most of the questions myself though! I agree, Matt is a stand up guy, but he has laid forth the guidelines for which he expects theme authors or plugin authors to follow in order to garner the support of not only himself but the wordpress project through the corresponding repositories. If people don’t want to do that, nothing stops them from doing things on their own.

  12. kristarella

    Matt is a stand up guy, but he has laid forth the guidelines for which he expects theme authors or plugin authors to follow in order to garner the support of not only himself but the wordpress project through the corresponding repositories.

    Did he do that before this week and before your podcast (haven’t listened yet, hope to tonight)? Until recently I had never heard of non-open themes being against the license. I’d heard some words against them, but thought it was purely opinion that it was against the open-ness of the WP community. Having read the license, it definitely is not clear what constitutes a derived work. It would make it a lot easier if there was an added paragraph that said something to the effect of “We do [or do not] consider themes and plugins that hook into WordPress functions to be derived works.”

    Hopefully I’ll get an answer to that in your interview. 🙂

  13. Jeffro2pt0

    Sorry Kirsta, I can’t remember if we specifically discussed what constitutes a derivative work or not. I do know that specific issue was discussed and debated very heavily on the WP-Hackers mailing list. Here is the link if you have the time to read two miles worth of debate which I can’t tell how it ended.

    http://groups.google.com/group/wp-hackers/browse_thread/thread/84c9e862adc63e2e

  14. Ty Bone

    @kristarella
    As of now Matt considers all WordPress themes derived works (even if the CSS files and images have nothing to do with WordPress function calls). He says that the way to look at it is, “If you are given a free theme without images or CSS files then would you use it?”

    An interesting discussion arises from child themes though. This is because the theme author can make child themes consist of purely CSS files and images. If that’s the case, there is really no reason that child themes need to be GPL.

  15. Ty Bone

    @Jeffro2pt0
    I respect that Matt is not planning to legally pursue anybody who is violating WordPress GPL.

    An interesting topic that you guys discussed in the WordPress Weekly podcast was Brian Gardner’s new GPL themes and paid support/service model. I’ve email Brian to ask what he considers as service and support. He says that anybody is free to post bugs onto the general forum. Only theme customizing questions and requests are considered as support and should posted at the paid forum. This seems like a viable business model for premium themes, but what about premium plugins? I can’t imagine anybody requesting anything from a plugin author than bug fixes and feature requests. What would be a good business model here?

    I would really be interested to hear you interview Brian Gardner on your WordPress Weekly show discussing his premium theme support business model. Maybe that would be a possible future show?

  16. Jeffro2pt0

    I plan on having Brian G and Jason on soon sometime in 2009. For now, I suggest taking a listen to the 10/10/2008 02:00 PM edition of WordPress Weekly where I did a special interview with Brian G around the time he was launching Revolution 2.

    http://tinyurl.com/wpweekly

  17. kristarella

    Any derivative works will be forced to be GPL compliant, so copycats cannot just copy the code and sell it for personal profits.

    This is a contradiction. It is completely within the GPL to sell redistributed, unmodified copies of software and it is against the GPL to prevent someone from doing so. I think you probably covered this in your update at the bottom, thanks for the link to the podcast will definitely listen.

    Confusion arouse from people not understanding GPL, or from people trying to create loop-holes/made-up-gray-areas for personal gains.

    Mmm, partly, but to me the confusion is not at all what the GPL stipulates, but what constitutes a derivative work. If you’re not adding your plugin/theme to the package and distributing WordPress with it or distributing a modified core, I’m still not 100% convinced that it counts as derivative. Maybe Matt’s statements in the podcast will change my mind.

  18. Ty Bone

    @kristarella
    Thank you for stopping by and providing your insight!

    You are right that the original statement is definitely contradictory. I wasn’t aware that GPL allows you to resell GPL’d code for money (thus the update as you said). Sounds like my solution is not viable at all :(. I must strike it out.

    Matt Mullenweg uses one rule of thumb to determine if something is a derivative work. The rule is, “If you take WordPress away, will the plugin / theme work?” In most cases they will not. That’s why it’s a WordPress plugin / theme. A good example of a semi-plugin that is not a derivative of WordPress is sharethis.com. The ShareThis WordPress plugin is derivative work, but the ShareThis widget (javascript you grab from sharethis.com to incorporate into your site) is not derivative work as it can work on any website (not just WordPress).

  19. John

    Thats *his* opinion. But nobody is sure until the cdourt makes a decision. IMO that makes wordpress a dependancy of the plugin, but does not make the plugin a derivitive work. Even still I choose to license my stuff, even my premium stuff under GPL

  20. kristarella

    Thanks for your reply Ty.

    Matt Mullenweg uses one rule of thumb to determine if something is a derivative work. The rule is, “If you take WordPress away, will the plugin / theme work?” In most cases they will not. That’s why it’s a WordPress plugin / theme.

    I think this is a poorly conceived rule of thumb. Most websites wouldn’t run without Apache and/or PHP running on their server; applications wouldn’t run without computer operating systems. As far as I know that doesn’t usually determine their license.
    Even if the end answer is still that themes should be GPL, I’d like a better reason than this. 🙂

  21. Ty Bone

    @Kristarella,
    That is true. Most of the internet will not work without Apache, PHP, or MySQL.

    Personally, I believe that if themes do not make any WordPress function calls, it should not automatically fall under GPL. Unfortunately, I am not a lawyer and, I’m not legally sure :(.

  22. Donace

    An interesting take indeed; and in regards to the legality i'm not to sure either but 'technically' wouldn't wordpress be considered a derative work of php?then if strictly following GPL all these php scripts should be GPL no?

    I also recently thought of this and the way I see it was yes the php of the theme should be 'gpl' BUT when you sell an item / give it away for free in an exchange for a link etc. What this is, is consideration for a contract / license for you to use the javascript/css other integration/adapt ions and integral parts of the theme that would not be a 'theme' without.

    So while the 'php' base maybe GPL the extra's are not….that is just my '2 pence'

  23. Ty Bone

    @Donace
    Thank you for being a first time commenter here! I see your point in making javascript/css/images non-GPL. I totally agree that child themes should be out of reach of GPL. Now if only people start following these guidelines :).

  24. Premium WordPress Themes and the GPL Discussions — WP-Premiums

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  25. Ryan

    You say at the end "Another example is premium themes selling single use and multiple use licenses. According to GPL, you should be able to buy the “single-use” license and be able to legally use it multiple times on multiple sites." But near the begining under point one you say that they are not selling the code, but the support around it. Therefore how can it be unethical for me to sell a premium plugin as a single site plugin? Obviously unser the terms of the GPL you CAN use it on as many sites as you want, but I however am saying I'll only support ONE of the sites, if the installation on a non-supported site breaks, too-bad it's not supported.

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