Because 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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.