Making Money From GPL Plugin Development

Every now and then, a conversation will take place on the WP-Hackers Mailing list that I can actually follow and understand. Back on March 1st, Joost de Valk who is a top 10 WordPress plugin author posed an interesting question to the list:

In my ever ongoing quest to find a way to make some money with all my plugins while still keeping them under the GPL and not charge for them, I was wondering how the “community” (as in you hackers and the ppl from Automattic) would react to advertising on plugins settings pages. I’m talking about adding one 125×125 ad spot to the top right of my plugins settings pages. Any thoughts?

Since this question was raised, there have been countless responses ranging from dealing with the massive amount of push back that seems inevitable no matter how tasteful the advertising is done to, why bother if the Click Through Rate won’t be high enough to justify the means. The way I see it, I don’t venture into the plugin settings pages that often once the plugin has been configured. Couple that with the fact that these advertisements would need to be tracked most likely with javascript to determine their effectiveness and we’re talking about injecting ads and third party content onto “MY SITE” without my permission, never mind that I installed the plugin.

But as we dive deeper into the conversation, Mike Schinkle asks what I believe to be a broader, more important question:

How can a plugin author generate a revenue stream to support his efforts that doesn’t require him or her to constantly do client-focused consulting and instead better target the needs of the general plugin user? If we could come up with a community-acceptable way that can generate real income for plugin developers w/o retarding the open-source aspects that make the WP community so vibrant and valuable, this could benefit most on the hacker’s list, no?

This might all sound familiar if we take a step back and review what has taken place with regards to honoring the GPL and premium themes. Now it would seem as though it’s the plugins turn to be in the lime light.

Some of the ideas proposed thus far:

Community Run Ad Server – The WordPress community could set up something like an adserver on the domain so that there would not be any untrusted third parties.

Companies Fund Development – Find a company that is willing to fund development for a specific version of the plugin. You would need to set yourself a tight release schedule and then have one company after another fund each version as it’s released.

The Code Is Free Services Are Not – The argument was made by Peter Westwood to think that the code you create for a plugin is free but the services around that code do not have to be. This means charging for support or using that plugin as a means of getting clients for custom development/consultation.

However, Nathan Rice raised a good counter argument in that, plugin developers would need to create an inferior product because if it was too easy to use or didn’t require support, you are effectively shooting yourself in the foot.

Donations – Lets not kid ourselves. Donations are meager at best based on what I’ve heard even from the most popular plugin developers. Add to that these bad economic times and it doesn’t make sense. Donations should be thought of as bonus income.


At this point, the conversation moved away from placing third party ads within the plugin settings pages to how plugin developers can make money while staying confined within the GPL. Now where have we heard that argument before?

Some suggest that plugin authors add Paypal donation links/buttons instead of ads within their plugin and have those donation links have a pre-determined amount instead of nothing. Many plugins already do this for example, the Google XML Sitemap plugin which I believe does a good job enabling people to donate right from the plugin settings page.


Even supports the ability through the plugins readme.txt file to have a paypal donation link show up on their plugin repository page. But as I mentioned before, donations should not be viewed as a primary source of income.

In my span of two years using WordPress, I have only donated a total of $50.00 to plugin authors. In fact, only one plugin author and that is Lester ‘Gamerz’ Chen. So while I’m not the poster child for donations, I do take issue with large organizations who use WordPress as well as a bunch of freely written plugins who don’t donate a dime towards those plugin authors. If I were a plugin author and noticed a very high profile website that is obviously making a good bit of cash using my plugin, I would think that at some point they would donate some money my way but apparently, that doesn’t happen for most plugin authors.

The same issues that surround selling premium themes in WordPress while abiding by the GPL also surround plugins. For instance, if someone decided to go through and display ads on their plugin settings pages, someone else could easily take that plugin apart, remove the commercial aspects and then redistribute it, totally taking apart that monetization strategy. I mean honestly, plugin authors are left with very few options when it comes to developing plugins for free under the GPL full-time while also making a decent salary. Matt Mullenweg continues to harp on the fact that the code is not where the value is, it’s what is built around that code. For instance, support forums, custom development, lead-ins to consulting work, plugins which serve as a resume to work at a company full time as a programmer, etc. The same could be said for premium theme authors but as we already know, they seem to be doing just fine throwing the GPL to the wind and doing things their way with no repercussions.

I love WordPress plugins and I don’t want to see so much talent jump from the WordPress ship because they can’t make a full time salary developing and then supporting these plugins. Some would argue that the very nature of the GPL license prevents those from making this living by not being able to appropriately license their code. Well, if that is the case, then it’s time you go to a platform that has a license you agree with or can make a living with because WordPress is not moving from the GPL anytime soon if at all.

Is it even possible for a plugin author to make a living developing plugins under the GPL or will it always be known as a hobby?

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