A Question For Premium Theme Authors

Ok, so here is the theoretical scenario. Theoretical because I don’t release or develop themes or plugins.

I’m a person who has created a plugin which modifies an integral part of a WordPress theme. End users end up contacting me to perform custom work with regards to implementing my plugin or their customizations to my plugin into their theme. However, in order to edit their theme, they must send it to me. This is where I had a few questions.

For you premium theme authors out their who don’t license your themes under the GPL, is it within your license for your customers to send me their theme for me to work on? If you’re not under the GPL, wouldn’t this violate their theme license because they have redistributed their theme to me in order to work on it? Am I required to immediately delete the theme once I have shipped them the finished product? Unless I am redistributing the themes my customers have provided to me to edit, how would you ever know your customer sent me their purchased theme?


11 responses to “A Question For Premium Theme Authors”

  1. I can’t comment on the rest of the hypothetical situation, but I think your premise is faulty. Your scenario does not fit the definition of distribution.

    Your client is not giving you the theme for your own use, but rather is giving you access to his copy of the theme, for you to modify for his use. Right or wrong, ethical or unethical – I have no comment on those; but I’m fairly certain that it isn’t distribution.

  2. Hey Jeff, for WPUnlimited, I ask people to get in touch with me directly. I don’t like my users/customers giving out the theme, but I have no qualms about talking with plugin developers and giving them a copy in hopes that we can make all plugins work with the theme.

  3. @Chip Bennett – but if a client (for example) emailed me a zip of the theme so *I* could tweak it and/or upload it to his site, that woudl be distribution. I still have a copy. Many premium themes don’t have anything in them to check who own the copy or where it is located. Up till now, it’s mostly an honor based system, and I think Jeff has an excellent point.

    To further the example, if it was an mp3 file you sent me, the RAA sure would consider that distribution.

  4. @Andrea_R – Respectfully, no; it would not be distribution as defined by copyright law.

    Distribution, as a matter of copyright law, specifically involves transfer to the public:

    Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights… to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending

    Regardless of the opinion of the hypothetical premium theme developer, such a scenario is not a violation of copyright’s exclusive right to distribution.

  5. @Chip Bennett – Hmm so in the end, it looks like this is a no brainer and it is perfectly acceptable for someone who has purchased the theme to send it to me to perform edits and then ship it back.

    @David – I bet most theme authors feel the same way. Anytime that theme is sent over to someone else, you end up with that thought in the back of your head wondering if they have redistributed it or if they deleted it or if they are saving it for themselves. I can see how it could be unnerving.

    So in the end, looks like what this boils down to is the moral or ethical awareness of the person making the edit?

  6. I don’t think we should bend the rules or even ask closed source theme developers to bend their rules for us. If they were open to other developers extending their software, they would have made it some type of open source license. Also, by showing were the line is drawn, the public will start to see the difference between open and close source.

    Doesn’t it seam like these close source developers are like leaches in a way? It’s like a one-way road. I’d go into more detail, but I just realized I’d either be talking to the wall or get into an argument about how close source theme developers give back to open source.

    I think WordPress.org should speak out against right & privilege limiting licenses. It creates complexities. Plus, I think Brian Gardner has shown us how theme developers can do it the right way under GPL.

  7. @Dan Cole – During the Thesis escapade yesterday, I thought about writing a post which listed things that premium themes have done to further free theme development. I think I’ll do that but in a different way.

    By the way, any theme developer which does not have a license compliant with the GPL can be classified as a leach.

  8. This is a really gray area. I understand the concerns of theme developers, but there is a big difference between outright theft and artistic or professional collaboration, regardless of the letter of the law.

    I have received copies of commercial themes from clients or colleagues that I have worked with on projects. They may send me a theme to customize, and then I’d send it back. I’m not exactly using that theme myself on a live site, or maybe even keeping it. But of course multiple copies end up existing in email archives.

    An even bigger problem arises with when collaborating with another designer halfway across the continent. They upload a commercial theme, I download it, make some changes, backup the changes, and upload it. They download that copy, change it, back it up, upload it again. Do that a few dozen times over the course of a project, and before you know it, there are hundreds of copies of the theme lurking around even though it is only installed once, or maybe a sandbox and a live version.

    In my opinion, if the copies of the theme are being used strictly for development, it’s a non-issue. However, if the copies are being used on live sites, then that’s a pretty nasty thing to do.

    But for better or worse, when you’re dealing with digital products, you have to expect a certain amount of loss in your business model, it’s inevitable, just ask the record companies!

  9. @Jeffro – That’s the way I see it, too. The client-developer relationship is one in which the client provides the developer with access to the work under his own authority and only his own authority to have/use that work, and with the explicit intent that the developer will return to the client both the work and the authority to use it at the conclusion of the business arrangement.

    Should the developer make any other use of the work during/after that business relationship, it is the developer who is stealing the work, rather than the client having illegally distributed the work.

    So, yes, there might still be a concern on the part of the copyrighted work’s developer in such a scenario, but that concern should be centered around the client’s hired developer, not the client himself.

    (Note that such risk is not unique to theme development specifically or software development in general. Holders of copyrighted works and other IP have to manage this risk in pretty much every industry and line of work.)

  10. Well, glad we settled that! Great to know that if I have a pondering question or a scenario, I can just plop it onto the blog and get help figuring it out :) Thanks Chip.

  11. Let’s say You buy a BMW car in an official BMW shop. Would it be wrong to alter it/ repair things in Your local car repair shop, which has no affiliation with BMW at all?

    In Your case You indeed get a copy, but not for redistribution or personal use, only to enhance it according to the owners requirements.

    What might happen is, that the original vendor won’t support the modified version anymore, but that’s not Your problem in this case. You should at least tell the hypothetical client about this issue.


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