42 Comments

  1. chris mccoy

    wont these “clubs” eventually get the accounts terminated by commercial plugin providers?

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  2. As you know, I’ve always sold support (mostly customization help) rather than code on ThemeHybrid.com. I never saw selling the code as the best route in terms of doing business in the WordPress community. In fact, I have people who sign up for my support forums but don’t use a single one of my themes or plugins because they know that I’ll answer their questions about other WordPress stuff.

    But, this discussion is being limited to “product” vs. “support”. Why are people talking about those things as if they were the only two routes available for making money in an open-source ecosystem? Automattic has numerous services that don’t rely on selling either of those things (there are other companies too). If you want developers to break away from selling code, you need to open a serious discussion on alternative business models and step outside of this box that we’ve all been playing in.

    In general, the best people to provide support for the product are the people who created it.

    In general, I agree. That’s not necessarily always the case. If it were, then the only people who should be answering questions in the WordPress support forums are people who have contributed code to core. You don’t have to build something to understand it. It really depends on how good the support is from either party.

    It’s even easier to provide support for themes that are not your own than it is plugins. Themes should generally fall within some set of standards that are reasonably easy to understand for even intermediate-level users. Heck, put a group of 10 novice theme users in a forum together; they’ll figure out what they need to know. “Support” is not really a good idea with themes. What you’re really selling is “customization” help.

    Plugins, on the other hand, have no such standards to follow because they are vastly different and can do anything. Depending on the complexity of the plugin, I don’t know if I’d trust a third party to handle support unless that third party was an established member of the plugin’s community or someone I trusted as a dev.

    ***

    Hypothetically speaking, if I ever opened a site to provide premium plugins/themes of others, I’d probably make it something like a $5/year club. This club would provide the code + free updates via an updater plugin that I coded. The club would also have a community forum in which the club members could help each other out.

    I definitely would not sell support on such a site and would push users to the developer’s/shop’s site for commercial support. The club payment would simply be a yearly fee to pay for the use of my services such as keeping the site running and keeping all the plugins/themes up-to-date.

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  3. I personally have bought around 2 or 3 plugins and prefer to tend towards the free plugins via the WordPress repository. That being said, if I need to purchase a plugin, I’d do it directly from the original creator. e.g. my plan is to set up a site running Easy Digital Downloads and I’ll most likely need to purchase a few extensions which might make a hole in my pocket with the hope I make this back!

    But, being a developer, it is important for me to support other developers, which till date has been via donations.

    Support is important, considering the amount of time as a developer you would need to spend as the plugin / theme gets popular.
    And, I believe if a user is really serious or really eager to solve a particular problem, they should be willing to pay for it.

    GPL code might be free, but if you’re capable of running everything out of the box, then great. If you need help, then you might consider paying for it!

    Reply

  4. @Justin Tadlock

    Hypothetically speaking, if I ever opened a site to provide premium plugins/themes of others, I’d probably make it something like a $5/year club. This club would provide the code + free updates via an updater plugin that I coded. The club would also have a community forum in which the club members could help each other out.

    Justin, would this be a sustainable model to function, especially when you have sites like Stackoverflow which have a strong user community for free?

    Just curious, because this is indeed an interesting option to increase the usage of plugins / themes plus foster a good community of users helping each other.

    But, at $5/year, you might end up with a bunch of users demanding crazy hours of support for something that would cost you a lot more.

    Reply

  5. Have you even read the GPL license? IF you had, you would realize that you ARE paying for the code. In GPL you can “charge to distribute”. Which is why the model of “you are paying for updates” is commonly heard. Technically, upon purchase you are receiving you “first full update” which to you is the entire product for the first time in your hands.

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  6. Thanks for referencing my post Jeff. This is something we have all commented on many times over the last few years. I imagine we will be here again discussing the same issues in years to come.

    Opinions seem to vary greatly. I think a big factor in how someone views GPL is what they do and how they make money from WordPress. Although I have released several free WordPress themes in the past, I would consider myself primarily as a WordPress blogger (much like yourself Jeff) and a website owner. I can fully understand why theme and plugin developers will have a different view on the issue than me.

    Likewise, I think the way that someone makes money through WordPress is key. If your income is greatly affected by someone forking your project or simply redistributing it, your opinion on GPL is obviously going to be shaped by that.

    On the issue of API keys: I do not mind API keys for support but I do not like entering an API key for a plugin to work. What if the third party website that verifies the API code goes down? You would then be left with a plugin that does not work. The same scenario would arise if the plugin developer left the world of WordPress and closed down their website. There is always a chance of this happening e.g. consider someone who sold their plugin website to someone who later realised they did not have time to maintain it. Bottom line, API keys should never be required for a plugin to work.

    With regards to releasing all GPL code free, I doubt this would be adopted. I imagine the majority of income for most plugin developers comes from the initial purchase and not updates and support renewals; particularly for developers who sell through marketplaces such as CodeCanyon.

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  7. When you say “ethics is subjective”, I think you mean “morals are subjective.” The distinction is important, especially in discussions around the GPL.

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    • What is the difference between ethics and morals? Don’t the two go hand in hand?

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  8. @Ajay

    Justin, would this be a sustainable model to function, especially when you have sites like Stackoverflow which have a strong user community for free?

    It’s really all about the numbers. If you have enough users coming in, it’ll pay for the amount of work/time you’d put into the site. I could see a site like that easily paying for an entire year of service with one month of income. Most of it is boring, tedious work, but it’s easy work.

    The price itself isn’t as important as the number of users. We’re talking Microeconomics 101 here. Supply. Demand.

    Of course, that all hinges on the demand being there, or at least having good enough word-of-mouth advertising. People are going to pay for the things that they find value in.

    But, at $5/year, you might end up with a bunch of users demanding crazy hours of support for something that would cost you a lot more.

    Like I said, I’d never sell support for a site like this.

    If I did add a support option, it’d be more of a limited premium service. Honestly though, I’d rather pass them along to the actual plugin/theme developer.

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  9. @Jeffro – Ethics are sort of a set of rules defined by society. Morals are more individual, personal beliefs or principles.

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  10. Ethics is subjective so let’s skip that word… Let’s take the good and bad approach.

    Good and bad are merely euphemisms for ethics. So, we can call it by a different name, but it’s still the same, tired, old debate.

    GPL is a copyright license; nothing more, nothing less. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: the only thing unethical is explicitly granting end users certain rights, and then trying to guilt-trip them out of exercising those rights, because you didn’t really want to grant them those rights in the first place.

    Well: tough. If you don’t want end users to have the rights expressed in GPL, then don’t license your copyrighted work under GPL. It’s really that simple.

    Now, if you want to talk about the ethics of other aspects of business models involving GPL code, that’s another matter. For example: if one of these clubs were advertising (or even just implying) that they’re selling the same thing as the original developer for a lower cost, but aren’t providing the same thing – such as updates and support – then that’s false advertising.

    But if they’re being forthright with what they’re offering for the money, and someone expects something more (such as included updates and support)? Caveat emptor.

    On paper, it seems pretty stupid to pay for GPL code. We hear the phrase “paying for support and product updates” repeatedly but it still seems as though we’re paying for the code first. So let’s make all code free. If we pay money, we’re actually paying for upgrades and support of that free code.

    No offense, but what I think is stupid is implying that development of code loses its intrinsic value solely based on the license under which that code is distributed. Extend the “make all GPL code free as in beer” argument to it’s logical conclusion, and you end up with Richard Stallman-esque moonbattery.

    To the contrary: code development itself does have intrinsic value, and that value translates into market value – not just support and maintenance, but the original code itself.

    Also, if commercial themes and plugins were free, sites like GPL Club and WP Avengers suddenly become the losers as they would then be charging for GPL code without the support to back it.

    Not really. In this dystopian world where developers are forced to give their code away for free, they would simply require end users to purchase support/maintenance in order to acquire the code in the first place. So, even then, there’d still be a market for the reseller clubs. So we’d be right back where we started.

    But I am fundamentally opposed to the following:

    1) Distributing code under a license that explicitly grants certain rights, then attempting to guilt trip users into refraining from exercising those rights
    2) Attempting to force developers to discount the intrinsic value added to their code through their development work, out of a collectivist belief that “all code should be free”

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  11. This is my view as a WooCommerce extension developer who spends every day building, maintaining and supporting the largest independent WooCommerce extension – Subscriptions.

    How would this change the way vendors today do business?

    The simple answer is, I would not have developed Subscriptions if there wasn’t a clear way to allow me to continuously work on it.

    That may seem like a simple statement, but consider it like this.

    There were plenty of “services” already in the subscriptions space before I started work on WooCommerce Subscriptions. There was no self-hosted, full featured, GPL’d and extensible subscription software on WordPress. That’s why I built it, but something I wouldn’t have done if it was going to go the way of the free plugins I’d released previously.

    When I first started working with WordPress, I released free plugins. I couldn’t keep up with the support and demands for new features. I also became exhausted by the rudeness that came from a very small, but very loud minority of users. I decided to abandon the larger of these free plugins. I admire the guys who have a thick enough skin to put up with it, and come up with innovative ways to make a living off it, like Justin, who is a legend, but for me, selling Subscriptions through the WooThemes marketplace works better than everything else I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a few different things). There is just a funny thing that makes people who pay for something value it (and you) more than those who don’t.

    The consequence of this is that there are now thousands of sites who have built a business, in many cases, a livelihood, by using WordPress, WooCommerce and Subscriptions. If I didn’t build Subscriptions, and didn’t sell it as GPL software, these sites would either not exist, or been forced into services like Chargify, where they would pay hundreds of dollars per month to have their data on someone else’s servers and get a tiny fraction of the flexibility and freedom that extensible, self-hosted, GPL software provides (a freedom a lot of sites exercise which all sorts of crazy and cool modifications).

    If the real value is in support and upgrades, then the question I have for commercial plugin and theme developers is why are they charging for their GPL licensed code?

    The better question is to ask a customer “why are you paying for it?” Or ask the more common, but very similar question – “why are you paying for a movie or music you can download on the Pirate Bay for free”?

    The answer usually revolves around the fact that smart people want to build a relationship with the developer. Especially if it’s software they are going to rely on. They know good software isn’t static. It’s constantly being developed. They know that when they create a financial relationship with the developer, they are increasing the chances that the software will continue to be improved (and there will be someone there to answer their questions).

    I like the idea of making software accessible, so I have experimented with releasing software free and funding it’s improvement by selling support (via bbBolt) and even crowd-funding on-going development. I confused customers so much on both accounts, I gave up on the idea and just started charging a simple price for everything, something everyone understands.

    I don’t care much that WP Avengers or GPL Club have offered Subscriptions for a lower price. I value the freedoms of the GPL and want to give all my users those freedoms, even if they have to pay for it. Most don’t know or care about the GPL, and there are a very small minority will exercise those freedoms in a way that can be detrimental to the continued improvement of the software. But really, those type of people would find a way to do that even if they weren’t given those freedoms, as you can see from all the ThemeForest themes that were released GPL compatible, instead of fully GPL, now available on the Pirate Bay.

    Rather than spending time paying attention to the latest entrant to the “commercial code for a reduced price” space, I spend my time answering questions and adding new features requested by those who did pay for it. Customers seem to like that, and Subscriptions continues to sell, so I keep providing support, fixing bugs and adding new features.

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  12. Sell your code to those who want to buy it.

    For the majority of people using a plugin or theme to achieve a certain result, the cost is going to be relatively unimportant, unless truly extortionate or unfair*. Sure, people like to save money but that is outweighed by their worry that they will not be technically capable of pulling it off, their concern that they will be stranded, staring for shitty hours at shit that doesn’t do the shit it’s supposed to shitting do. Most of those who dabble in these waters have developed a healthy fear of their own incompetence.

    Most people will happily pay to receive a product from the original developer if the price is fair and the website stresses that they will receive support all the way through to achieving their desired result and beyond. They know that no-one knows the code better than the guy who wrote it. It does not matter that they can receive identical code elsewhere for free, it does not matter that they are unlikely to ever actually submit a support ticket: they suspect, deep in their core, that only the original seller possesses the magical mojo required to make their dreams come true.

    That is where your sales are: most people. Some of them might actually first encounter your product on one of these cheap or free sites but they will eventually find their way upstream to you. The ones who don’t, the ones who are technically confident enough not to need that reassurance, or genuinely broke enough not to be able to afford it, well, they were never going to be your customers anyway, let it go.

    * The idea of redistribution sites only gained this recent momentum because a big company treated its existing customers badly enough to create a backlash. Other developers whooped and cheered, applauding their “bravery” in massively hiking their prices and retroactively changing terms once users were already locked in, but that was hubris, it ignored certain realities. When we say that the GPL protects users, we mean that there is a limit to how unfairly you can treat them before they decide that getting the code from the original developer isn’t such a good idea after all. Cause and effect.

    We are all learning, we all make mistakes but, as is now becoming apparent, that was a pretty big one. We had gone almost a decade without code redistribution being a problem for commercial WordPress products. As Justin Tadlock points out above, it is technically possible and, I would argue, financially obvious that a site could offer all the major commercial plugins and themes, along with automatic updates, for a relatively cheap annual subscription. The fact that it hadn’t already happened is something of a miracle, a testament to just how much goodwill there was in our community … but you can only stretch things so far and, now, the GPL cat is out of the bag. Adapt to that reality.

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  13. Carl Hancock

    Bottom line from someone who’s been doing this for over 4 years now:

    Gravity Forms wouldn’t exist as we know it if we didn’t have the business model that we have. In fact it probably wouldn’t exist at all.

    Sure thee are WordPress businesses that survive giving away their product and only charging for support. But in every case I can think of those are small 1 and 2 man shops. How many of those are businesses with an office, employees, fully paid company benefits, and employees who love what they are doing because the business model affords them these benefits and in turn that love is passed down to the customers in the quality of the product itself.

    Just like the idea that donations could sustain a plugin, the idea that enough users would purchase support after downloading fans using a product for free is a pipe dream.

    Here is what would happen, hell this happens with paying customers until we show them otherwise: the user would download and install the plugin. They’d encounter a problem and in our case our #1 and #2 support issues are email notifications not being sent due to server and/or DNS configuration and theme/plugin conflicts by poor code. The user would go, “This is crap.” and then deactivate and uninstall the plugin. If you think they’d go buy support at that point then you have no clue what you are talking about androbably have never done what we do.

    Our company wouldn’t exist if we used this business model. That’s 12 people with families who wouldn’t be making a living creating a WordPress plugin and over a million sites that wouldn’t be using our product. I can say that that with 100% confidence.

    As for support? Knowing what goes into supporting Gravity Forms and the larger user base that we have? Good luck to anyone who thinks they could provide high quality support for our product when they didn’t write it.

    I know what’s involved and the complexities of the application itself because that is what it is… An application. It’s only a plugin because that is what WordPress refers to it as when you install it.

    As for API keys. There is more that goes on than just updates. In the case of Gravity Forms there is going to be much more SaaS functionality that will be coming that will simply not work unless you have an API key to interact with our API. Functionality that will make the product more reliable and solve some of the primary support issues we must deal with on a daily basis caused by issues out of our control. We’re going to take control of them. SaaS is going to allow us to do so.

    As for sites making premium plugins and themes available for free… they are already out there. We see them all the time. Users point them out to us. Users come to used expecting support because they downloaded it from site X instead of buying it from us. It causes confusion.

    On top of all of this there is the issue of branding and trademarks.

    People seem to think that the code being GPL means the brand is GPL and you can do with it as you please. Sorry folks, that’s not the case. What happens when you use WordPress instead of WP in a domain name? They can go after your domain. Using someone else’s brand in a way they didn’t approve has legal ramifications that are outside the scope of the GPL. But that seems to be forgotten when people talk about the GPL as it relates to themes and plugins. The code within Gravity Forms may be GPL but the Gravity Forms brand most certainly is not.

    If you want to give someone else’s premium theme or plugin away for free or even monetize it by giving it away for free and supporting it… then fork it and make it your own. Brand it as your own. The GPL let’s you do that with the code. But those well established brands themselves? They aren’t GPL.

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  14. @Brent Shepherd – Exactly what he said. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    If selling code is allowed under the GPL then why all the hoo-haa about it? Money in the bank means additional resources for further development of a product and excellent customer support. As Brent grows he will no doubt bring on additional staff to help with support or development.

    Large organisations like Automattic have the luxury of having raised funding and a lot of staff to run VIP services and generate revenue at a scale that even the big plugin and theme shops can’t so it’s viable for them to give away GPL code.

    If nobody sold GPL code, WordPress would not power almost 20% of the web. See, from an end users point of view, without the plugin architecture WordPress is pretty simple software with a lot of gaping holes that need filling if it’s going to power the majority of the web – think Gravity Forms and WooCommerce as two obvious examples. So without revenue from the sale of GPL code these solutions that “plug-in” to WordPress wouldn’t exist and therefore it’s popularity would not be growing at the rate it is.

    Ask yourself why you stuck with WordPress when you first started using it? Because the plug-ins extended its functionality.

    In reality, whether we sell GPL code or support and upgrades is mere semantics. I understand it’s not semantics philosophically but I’m talking about reality. Plug-in developers could make GPL code free but only give it to customers buying support and upgrades. However the notion of giving GPL code away for free and selling support and upgrades as an optional extra would see a lot of premium plug-in companies unable to sustain themselves and the code they develop. This is a lose-lose for everybody.

    Having just returned home to Melbourne from WordCamp Europe and Pressnomics, I must say I think there are bigger conversations we should be having.

    As Joost so excellently points out in his article “Victory of the Commons” building a sustainable business with healthy profits is good for the entire community. You can’t contribute to core, submit bug patches, organise a WordCamp or help out with documentation if you are hungry and homeless.

    As long as authors of themes and plug-ins designed to work with WordPress are distributed under the GPL then they should be free to design whatever business model they can to grow and profit so they can continue to add value to their customers.

    Happy customers means happy WordPress users which is good for all of us.

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  15. Ulrich

    There would be no motivation to build a plugin and only sell support. Why not just start a WordPress support company?

    The question is also what is the motivation for writing good code and making it easy to use. There would more money when there more support tickets.

    I believe it is possible to support someone else’s code but I wonder how GPL Club handle bugs.

    I think having a server side feature for a plugin is best.

    If the plugin is free then it is impossible to sell updates as whenever there is update you can download the plugin again with the latest version.

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  16. Plugin development has a cost. Those who create free plugins either do it as a hobby, or their employer sees it as a way to bring attention to their company, so they can sell a related product. At the end of the day, quality plugin development can only be achieved through a lot of time and effort, and that requires ongoing revenue. There is no such thing as free.

    Auttomatic has services, but they also have a captive audience to promote those services too, so their business model won’t work for everyone.

    Selling plugins and themes under GPL, rather than offering the same software for free, allows the developer to continue development, along with support, and updates, which can include bug fixes, security fixes, and compatibility fixes. Anyone who has downloaded a plugin from WordPress.org knows it is rare to find a good quality FREE plugin, even from the largest WordPress repository in the world. A good trusted developer you buy a plugin from can provide a reliable product, because that developer needs you to pay the bills. That is how business has always worked, since there was such as thing as a business.

    One of the biggest difficulties for developers though is how to provide plugin and theme updates, so like Brent, I developer an API Manager for WooCommerce to allow developers to sell their own products, and provide automatic updates. I would not be developing this software if it wasn’t being financially supported, because it requires so many development hours. The best plugins cannot be developed for free.

    http://www.toddlahman.com/shop/wordpress-automatic-update-api-manager/

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  17. I agree with many of the developers who have already chimed in here.

    The only thing really to be gained by charging solely for support is the perceived idea that you don’t support your products because that is exactly what will be claimed when a user has a conflict. People paying for support is a rarity. It happens on occasion but they are the exceptions not the norm. Like Carl said above, you can do this but you won’t be able to build a company like Gravity. You would just have a small shop that plugs holes instead of building ships.

    If your desire is to patch holes that’s great. There is a market for you to do exactly that. I just don’t think that’s why most of us are developers. Some of us are building full application level products.

    But let me try and answer some of your questions directly.

    How would this change the way vendors today do business?

    It would put most developers out of business as it wouldn’t be able to sustain the full-time attention of one developer much less a team. Sites that currently redistribute the work of others would cease to exist because that work would slowly disappear. If no one in this market is willing to pay the developers most of them will no longer be able to develop for this market.

    If the real value is in support and upgrades, then the question I have for commercial plugin and theme developers is why are they charging for their GPL licensed code?

    That is not where the real value is.That is where some of the value is. Much of the value is on the hundreds and for some of us thousands of hours of time we have put into building and improving our products. Much of the value is in knowing we will be around to continue that development far into the future. And many are charging for GPL code because of my answer to your other question above.

    In the end the GPL license doesn’t enter into our decision to charge for access to our code. We charge because the work that we have put into that code is valuable. If someone else doesn’t see that value then chances are they were never going to be our customer to begin with.

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  18. Carl Hancock

    @iMadalin – I’m not sure how your comment has relevance. Nobody is disputing the relevance of the GPL nor is anyone discussing if WordPress themes and plugins are considered derivative works. I’m not sure you quite understand what is being discussed here. The GPL does not prevent you from selling GPL products. In fact they encourage it.

    I strongly suggest you read this:

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html

    This is a direct quote from the GNU project from that page. The people that wrote the GPL:

    “Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU Project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible — just enough to cover the cost. This is a misunderstanding.

    Actually, we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can.”

    So again, I don’t see how your comment has any relevancy to the discussion at hand.

    But then again, far too many are not educated on what exactly the GPL is and isn’t. People make false assumptions. Educate yourself and then joint he conversation.

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  19. @Carl Hancock – As I’ve commented under the recent GPL post at Jean Galea’s WPMayor, the toxic blend of ignorance and misinformation flying around the GPL makes a serious discussion almost impossible.

    It bewilders me that people are interested enough in WordPress to follow WordPress news blogs, but unwilling to learn about the fascinating concepts that underpin this whole adventure.

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  20. Carl Hancock

    @donnacha – Drop me an email sometime at my carl at rocketgenius dot com email address. Your long running desire for a certain Gravity Forms Add-On that was also the subject largest thread in our entire support forum historically (in the feature request forum, but it was the largest thread in any forum) will be something we’ll be doing in the new year, among other far more advanced add-ons, so I’d love to let you know what our plans are and get your feedback once we do in fact begin development.

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  21. @Carl Hancock – That is terrific news, really wonderful, I always hoped that your team would be the ones to would zoom in on that opportunity; if you manage to pull it off it will be the biggest news in commercial WordPress since, well, Gravity Forms itself!

    Email dropped :)

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  22. @chris mccoy – You would think so. I think if you read the GravityForms Terms of Service, doing what GPL Club is doing is not allowed and could cause their account to be suspended or terminated.

    @Justin Tadlock

    Automattic has numerous services that don’t rely on selling either of those things (there are other companies too). If you want developers to break away from selling code, you need to open a serious discussion on alternative business models and step outside of this box that we’ve all been playing in.

    That’s just it, Services. Once you go the service route, then everything else regarding GPL or code becomes a moot point. As a service, it probably opens up more doors and if you set things up correctly, could make you platform agnostic so you’re not locked into WordPress.

    I know if I attended Pressnomics this past weekend, I would have a better understanding of all of this but you have an open invitation to publish an article on WPTavern.com that starts the serious discussion on alternative business models. What better stage and feedback mechanism than this site :)

    Perhaps not always the case, but enough to make it seem like common sense. At the same time though, there are companies like WP HelpCenter and WP SiteCare that exists purely for supporting everyone elses work. So point taken!

    @Kevin Muldoon

    Likewise, I think the way that someone makes money through WordPress is key. If your income is greatly affected by someone forking your project or simply redistributing it, your opinion on GPL is obviously going to be shaped by that.

    That is true. However, the developers ought to know all of that before going into business instead of complaining about it when it eventually happens. As far as API keys go, I too don’t mind using them to show that I at least purchased a plan to get support but as far as using it to obtain access to services goes, I generally haven’t had a problem. I use a lot of services that need an API key or WordPress.com connection and I haven’t discovered any major problems but then again we’re talking about WordPress.com infrastructure here. No guarantee that joe schmoe will have that kind of setup.

    It sure as hell would be annoying to use a service that is integral to your site that is continuously going offline. Then we would be clamoring for that functionality to be within the plugin. Another one of those vicious circles!

    I knew 100% going into writing this post that the notion of free GPL code would either piss people off or wouldn’t fly. I’ve been around the community too long to know that would ever happen but when writing this post, I thought it was an interesting perspective worth talking about. The license says you can charge for GPL code and in fact, encourages people to do so. So as long as that’s in the language, people will charge for GPL code and that’s just the way it is.

    @Justin Tadlock – Either way, we don’t make much progress talking about ethics or morals when it comes to GPL, code, and WordPress.

    @Chip Bennett – heh, no offense taken. It’s not that the code loses its intrinsic value based on the license under which it was distributed. It was the thought that code that has a price tag can be easily redistributed with no price tag and if enough of that code is distributed in that manner, then it seems stupid to pay for it. Not sure if that makes more sense.

    I have no plans to turn into Stallman anytime soon, so breath a sigh of relief lol. If developers were forced to release their code for free, then sites like GPL club or WP Avengers would then be the ones with the high price tags, if we used the current scenario. However, if the code those two sites are redistributing is free anyways, than GPL club and WP Avengers look even more like con artists and are gaining nothing by being around. Then the only way they can make money is by selling support for those products at a cheaper rate than the developer or as Justin pointed out, make a club that pulls in the updates.

    @Brent Shepherd

    I like the idea of making software accessible, so I have experimented with releasing software free and funding it’s improvement by selling support (via bbBolt) and even crowd-funding on-going development. I confused customers so much on both accounts, I gave up on the idea and just started charging a simple price for everything, something everyone understands.

    I totally understand that. In fact I mentioned that in the post as to why developers don’t just charge for support and updates seperate of getting access to the code. It would cause confusion. Might as well package it all into one price.

    Most don’t know or care about the GPL, and there are a very small minority will exercise those freedoms in a way that can be detrimental to the continued improvement of the software.

    This statement has been made years ago when the initial GPL debates around commercial themes were taking place. I think it still holds true today. The customer just wants a product to function with great support and updates at a price they can afford. The license is just fluff and probably not a purchasing decision.

    Rather than spending time paying attention to the latest entrant to the “commercial code for a reduced price” space, I spend my time answering questions and adding new features requested by those who did pay for it. Customers seem to like that, and Subscriptions continues to sell, so I keep providing support, fixing bugs and adding new features.

    I think you have a great head on your shoulders and this is the route many developers should take. Thanks for taking the time to participate in the discussion.

    @donnacha – There is no shortage of people willing to buy code! Even your shitty comments are good reads!

    @Carl Hancock – I always appreciate hearing from those in the trenches of WordPress business. Damn shame I couldn’t attend Pressnomics this year but I’ll be first in line next year!

    There is more that goes on than just updates. In the case of Gravity Forms there is going to be much more SaaS functionality that will be coming that will simply not work unless you have an API key to interact with our API. Functionality that will make the product more reliable and solve some of the primary support issues we must deal with on a daily basis caused by issues out of our control. We’re going to take control of them. SaaS is going to allow us to do so.

    In talks with others through the grapevine, this direction doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, a lot of people are surprised that GForms didn’t do this sooner. Can you confirm or deny that at some point in the future, all of the functionality found within the Gravity Forms plugin will exist on a site and no longer be in the plugin? If so, then all this GPL crap has no more meaning for you and now, GForms has been opened up to a lot more sites as it could become platform agnostic. Sounds to me like the groundwork for that is being laid.

    @Troy Dean – What do you mean hoo-haa about it? No one has an issue paying for GPL code. I’m not demanding developers release their code for free. I was just throwing out a point of view and simply asking questions that commercial developers would be able to answer.

    Large organisations like Automattic have the luxury of having raised funding and a lot of staff to run VIP services and generate revenue at a scale that even the big plugin and theme shops can’t so it’s viable for them to give away GPL code.

    As I mentioned to someone else, I think it’s unfair to mention services and giving away code in the same sentence. Once you’re a service, distribution is non-existent. So what code are those services giving away?

    Having just returned home to Melbourne from WordCamp Europe and Pressnomics, I must say I think there are bigger conversations we should be having.

    I extend the same invitation to you as I did to Justin Tadlock. WPTavern can be used as your stage if you want to start or get those “larger conversations” started. I have no idea what those conversations are so it would be a learning experience for me.

    @Ulrich – Well, I hear that all the time but I highly doubt that would ever become a reality. People would disappear faster than going through support if developers intentionally left bugs in their software so people would purchase support packages. Those developers would get a bad reputation very quickly as well. http://www.wpsitecare.com/ and until recently, WPHelpCenter so there’s a way to make money!

    I want to thank everyone for stopping by and answering the questions I put forth in this post. I learned a couple things through reading your comments. This will be one for the archives!

    Reply
  23. Carl Hancock

    @Jeffro – To answer your question…

    In talks with others through the grapevine, this direction doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, a lot of people are surprised that GForms didn’t do this sooner. Can you confirm or deny that at some point in the future, all of the functionality found within the Gravity Forms plugin will exist on a site and no longer be in the plugin? If so, then all this GPL crap has no more meaning for you and now, GForms has been opened up to a lot more sites as it could become platform agnostic. Sounds to me like the groundwork for that is being laid.

    No. There are no plans for the bulk of Gravity Forms to be turned into a SaaS service and for us to store all of your data, display your forms via JS embed code, etc. and the plugin itself to be simply a gateway to that data. That is what Wufoo and Formstack does. That isn’t what we do.

    Going SaaS takes a way a lot of the advantages that we have being a WordPress plugin that the SaaS solutions don’t have which is deep WordPress integration with the ability to do a wide variety of things such as create content, users, update content, update users, etc. So that isn’t something we are looking at doing. Being a WordPress plugin and the fact that our product is self-hosted and provides tight WordPress integration is a key differentiator for us that the SaaS form solutions simply don’t have.

    Where we do plan on leveraging SaaS is to tackle certain things such as our #1 support issue: email notification reliability and deliverability. Sending email on self-hosted web servers via PHP simply isn’t reliable and is a major pain in the ass. So many web hosts, so many different configurations, so many domains with DNS not setup properly to reliably send email and so many web hosts providing users with IP addresses that are blacklisted so emails sent from those IP addresses never arrive. NONE of these are issues Gravity Forms causes or has any control over. But it’s something that takes up a large amount of our support teams time.

    This is an example of where a SaaS service to offload handling sending the actual email notifications would allow us to eliminate a major support issue that we currently have no control over. We would do so by partnering with an extremely reliable email service provider such as SendGrid, MailGun, Mandrill, etc. I listed a few big names, we know our most likely partner but nothing is set in stone just yet. But it’ll be backed by one of the biggest and most reliable email providers available. Email notifications for forms are important. Making sure deliverability of these notifications is important. We want to make sure they are as reliable as possible and SaaS will help us do that.

    Another example is SMS notifications. Currently in order to to SMS notifications you’d need to install the Twilio Add-On, create a Twilio account, pay for Twilio, configure the Twilio Add-On with your API information, etc. We want to streamline things and make them more user friendly and simply make SMS a type of Notification you can configure. Again, it would then be handled via SaaS and like email we’d partner with a major provider of SMS services such as Twilio to handle actually sending the SMS. No installing an Add-On, no needing to know what Twilio is. Simply create a notification, select SMS instead of email and it just works.

    These are some examples. There are others.

    We have no plans to move Gravity Forms aware from it’s roots as a self-hosted WordPress form solution. We also don’t plan on making it platform agnostic at this time. The WordPress marketplace is so large that as big as we are right now we have only scratched the surface. The work involved in making Gravity Forms platform agnostic wouldn’t pay off due to the marketing that would be necessary to acquire non-WordPress users. I don’t think the payoff would be worth it.

    But we definitely plan on implementing SaaS solutions within Gravity Forms to make certain functionality much more reliable and take some things that are currently completely out of our control due to the way WordPress and self-hosted solutions work and give us more control in order to make them more reliable and help curb the amount of support issues they cause.

    Gravity Forms will never be a 100% SaaS WordPress plugin. But it will become more of a hybrid where certain functionality is handled via SaaS. Your data will still be your data. We’re more concerned about leveraging SaaS in order to make key functionality more reliable and less prone to causing support issues that are out of our control.

    Hopefully that helps explain some of the ways we plan on using SaaS in the future and the groundwork is indeed already being laid.

    As for Pressnomics, you are correct. Don’t miss it next year. It was hands down the best WordPress event i’ve ever been to because it focused entirely on what interests me… the business of WordPress.

    Reply

  24. @Carl Hancock – Thanks for clearing all of that up. If I see it come up in other discussions, now I can just link to your comment. Of course, anytime Gravity Forms is mentioned, I think the RocketGenius Rocket lights up and you immediately tend to the situation lol.

    So that’s interesting. Not one or the other but a hybrid approach. SaaS that solve your most pressing support issues but still maintaining all of the functionality that is integrated with WordPress in the plugin. I like the sound of that.

    You, I, and the RocketGenius team are overdue for a meeting at http://www.fogodechao.com/ sure would be nice to chat about the past few years and where you guys are going in the future.

    Reply

  25. @Jeffro – the “hoo-haa” was a reference to just about every WordPress based event I have ever attended – not directed at WP Tavern or you.

    The point about Automattic is that by generating revenue through VIP services, VaultPress, WordPress.com premium upgrades and the like (all of which require a large staff and infrastructure to deliver) they are in the position to give WordPress to the world freely as their revenue streams are taken care of. Smaller players don’t have that luxury. Not a judgment, merely an observation about the commercial reality.

    Service revenue (in part) funds giving WordPress to the world.

    Thank you for the invitation. Is there an application for a guest post or contribution?

    Keep up the good work and thanks for staying active in this conversation. It’s good to see authors who reply and continue to engage.

    Reply

  26. @Carl Hancock – I don’t say that you should not charge.

    Initially what WPAvengers pointed, intrigued me too, about how Woothemes lies to custommers about “numbers”. That is more unethical then the fact that WPAvengers is redistributing Woothemes “software”.

    The fact is that anybody who creates software under GPL license and charges for it, must be aware that others that have access to the source code can alter it and redistribute, as long as they don’t redistribute parts that aren’t under GPL license.

    Still, WPAvengers and GPLClub are doing it the wrong way.

    Reply


  27. @Chip Bennett -

    I agree with your entire comment, with one minor exception… Richard Stallman is dogmatic about software being free, according to the “four freedoms”. However, none of those four freedoms mention cost.

    Likewise, nothing in the GPL prohibits someone from charging for the code they write or distribute. That’s the perogative of the individual distributing GPL code. The only obligation is that the source code be provided at a reasonable distribution cost. For example, I could create a plugin and charge $1,000 for it. As long as I don’t request another $1,000 just for the source code (unless it really costs $1,000 to make a copy), then I am fine by the GPL. Following this same logic, the clubs are well within the bounds of the license as long as they follow the distribution rules.

    Do I think it unethical? No. Does it harm the community? Maybe. These folks do run the risk of alienating themselves from the larger WordPress community and the original plugin developers. This could make it more difficult for them and could lead to a fork, if the original developers refuse to sell newer versions to their plugins to the folks offering their services.

    Reply
  28. Carl Hancock

    @Jeffro – Indeed. Had you been at Pressnomics we would have taken you to Fogo with us. When our office renovation is complete next year we’ll bring you down for our unveiling party. Sound good?

    Reply
  29. Carl Hancock

    @iMadalin – Ok I misunderstood as your original comment didn’t have much context and primarily just linked to the WordPress licensing. I agree with you.

    I think the main thing for me is that I think the GPL was primarily intended so that users and other developers could take someone else’s code and customize it or improve upon it and then release it as your own.

    Just taking someone else’s GPL code and distributing it as is? With no changes other than it isn’t behind a paywall? Or to sell it without making any changes and offer support for code you didn’t even develop? Make it better. And “free” isn’t a feature so simply making it available for free isn’t making it better. What’s the point in that? Sure it’s allowed, I just simply do not see any value in it.

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  30. @Jeffro

    That’s just it, Services. Once you go the service route, then everything else regarding GPL or code becomes a moot point. As a service, it probably opens up more doors and if you set things up correctly, could make you platform agnostic so you’re not locked into WordPress.

    I know if I attended Pressnomics this past weekend, I would have a better understanding of all of this but you have an open invitation to publish an article on WPTavern.com that starts the serious discussion on alternative business models. What better stage and feedback mechanism than this site :)

    No way! I want you to publish an article on it. :)

    Really though, I’m no business genius. There are far better people than me who could write on the subject. I just know there’s a lot more opportunities out there that no one really talks about in most WP circles. Maybe not today, but at some point in the future, selling themes/plugins will probably not be the first route one would want to take a as a dev/designer because that market will be saturated. That’s unless you have the next big idea, and I don’t see that in the theme space. The plugin arena is wide open though.

    When I said “services,” that probably wasn’t the best term. I probably should’ve just said they’re selling “things” and kept it a little more vague because I wasn’t really looking at getting into a discussion on products vs. services. There’ll always be a product market, but as a producer, you don’t necessarily have to go along with the status quo. That’s the message I was really trying to get across.

    The point is that what we really need to focus on is building really cool stuff and finding creative ways to sell it while respecting the license.

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  31. @Carl Hancock – Yes, I accept that invitation. Do you remember my famous quote the first time we at there? lol

    @Justin Tadlock – Guess I’ll have to do what I’m paid to do and research those business models.

    The point is that what we really need to focus on is building really cool stuff and finding creative ways to sell it while respecting the license.

    Exactly and if I come across any companies or services doing this, I’ll be reporting on it :)

    @Troy Dean – See, you mention WordPress as if Automattic owns it and it’s their product to give away. This is not true. They do not own WordPress and it was free of charge the day it was created, long before WordPress.com or any other service existed.

    Service revenue (in part) funds giving WordPress to the world.

    Actually, it would be more accurate to say Service revenue (in part) funds the hiring and development costs to contribute back to the WordPress.org project Two very different things.

    Feel free to get in touch with me via the contact form on this site and perhaps we can figure something out to get your perspective and questions out to a larger audience.

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  32. @Jeffro – I understand your point and you are right, Automattic do not own WordPress.

    My point is that without their multiple revenue streams they would not be able to employ lots of developers to contribute to WordPress.org

    Perhaps I didn’t articulate myself as accurately as I could have.

    I will get in touch.

    Reply

  33. @Troy Dean – Well, now we’re getting some where :) You’re right, without those streams, they would only have their VC funding to fall back on although I still think they would find a way to have folks contribute to WordPress.org as they would be foolish not to.

    Reply


  34. When we launched WPtouch Pro, we received backlash at the time from people who were adamant that you couldn’t charge for a GPL product. Thankfully we rarely get that anymore. But it’s nice to see more discussions around the GPL and business models for WordPress products.

    Neither Dale or myself ever had any aspirations with turning WPtouch into a professional version back in the day. But we hit a point, somewhere around the 1.5 million download mark on wp.org, where we simply couldn’t keep up with the support requests (often coming to me via my personal website). At the time we were both working full-time jobs in other careers – Dale was doing social work, and I was working in the Voice over IP industry. We would have loved to work less at our day jobs and more on WPtouch, but the donation button we had in the admin panel only yielded about $500 on donations at that point. At that time, 2009, WPtouch was voted the #1 plugin by WordPress users (Matt Mullenweg showed a slide to this effect at WordCamp SFO that year). So even though it was one of the most downloaded and most popular plugins at the time, people just weren’t supporting it through donations.

    As a result we ended up creating the commercial version with the hope that it would generate enough money for two people to work on it as our full time jobs. We based the original revenue model mostly on the Gravity Forms model (thanks Carl) which seemed to be working for them. I agree though with people who say support wouldn’t work as a model – if we didn’t charge for the distribution of the code and future updates along with support, I don’t think we’d make much money at all. Same goes for documentation.

    What many people maybe don’t realize is that many premium plugin authors use the funds of their premium products to fund development of free versions. For example, we have three free plugins that we regularly try to update – WPtouch, WordTwit and Piggy. WPtouch undoubtedly helps with sales of WPtouch Pro, but the other two don’t have any commercial ties. Without the money received from the Pro version, we wouldn’t have the resources to continue work on our free products. And we enjoy using these products ourselves, and are happy to continue working on them since others seem to like them too.

    Like many premium plugin and theme authors, we have the trademark for our product ‘WPtouch Pro’. So while the GPL protects the freedoms of the person who bought the software with respect to the usage of the code, it doesn’t give them the right to resell the product as WPtouch Pro. They can rebrand it and sell it as something else, but they can’t sell it as WPtouch Pro. That would be confusing to consumers (similar how going to a website with wordpress in the domain might make someone think it was an official WordPress site), and one of the things that trademarks are meant to protect.

    I think for most of our customers though (99% or higher), the intricacies of the GPL aren’t relevant – people come to our website looking for a mobile website solution and simply buy it because it looks like it will solve their problem.

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  35. Good points. In the end we have to realise that there is a market for products that come with support and those that come without it and until WooThemes and other providers offer both options, people will make their own solutions.

    Reply

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