Why Are We Paying For GPL Licensed Code?

Kevin Muldoon has published a great post that may change the mindset of both WordPress end users and developers. In his post, he talks about WordPress, GPL, and ethics but further into the post, he mentions that perhaps we should not be thinking about what sites like GPL Avengers or GPL Club are doing as right or wrong but rather, good or bad.

When you start talking about premium GPL products, the line between what is right or wrong gets a little blurred. Perhaps the terms “Right” and “Wrong” should not be used in this debate at all. “Good” and “Bad” are more suitable. GPL is supposed to benefit the WordPress community. So we need to consider what is good and what is bad for the community?

Ethics is subjective so let’s skip that word. It’s as bad as saying “spirit” when talking about the GPL. What GPL Avengers and GPL CLub are doing is not illegal and I don’t think anyone will argue that point. Let’s take the good and bad approach.

The Good:

Both are offering commercial products either for free or for a substantially lower price. This is good because those who don’t need support can make do with the lower price. It’s also good in that it exposes the commercial offerings to a larger market segment that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford purchasing from the original developer.

The Bad:

GPL Club points out that support is only provided by the original product authors. Meanwhile, WP Avengers provides automatic updates and premium support via forums and support credits. I am not sure how this works but their forum is not publicly accessible. In general, the best people to provide support for the product are the people who created it. By acquiring products through either of these two sites, unknowing customers will either be out of luck in getting support, or may not get the best support money can buy.

There are a number of great comments about this situation that I encourage you to read like, this one from Paul, or Andrew. What is boils down to is these two sites have started a race to the bottom but I think that race has been going on for a long time.

One of the scenarios that Kevin laid out was the following:

With regards to where the buck stops :) WP Avengers and GPL Club are charging money for premium plugins that other people developed. Here’s a thought….what if someone went one step further and released all premium plugins free. For example, a plugin and theme directory that allowed every single premium WordPress theme and plugin to be downloaded free of charge. No malware, no hidden agenda. Simply someone who wanted to share all premium plugins with the world.

How do you think the WordPress community would react to this? Would it kill the market for premium WordPress products or would developers have to focus on support? – Kevin Muldoon

I think it would be fantastic. 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. But I know exactly what this would do to commercial themes and plugins. We’d end up with free code that only has one purpose. To serve up a prompt asking for an API key. In a way, I’d be ok with this because it would be less code running on my site but on the flip side, I’d then be relying on an increasing number of third-party sites to be online to make sure my forms worked. If all commercial themes and plugins were free, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would just rapidly make the transition to purchasing support and upgrades or service add-ons. 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.

A Few Questions For My Commercial WordPress Developer Friends

It’s fascinating to think about all GPL licensed code in themes and plugins being free as in beer. How would this change the way vendors today do business? 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 GPL license says you can do it, but what’s the point? I’ll guess and say that it would then be too confusing for customers to figure this all out so it’s easier to bundle everything in one purchase. At the end of the day, WP Avengers, GPL Club and sites like them are not going to put the original vendors out of business. All they are is an inconvenience.

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