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 WordPress.org 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.

The GPL

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.

googlesitemap

Even WordPress.org 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?

14 Comments


  1. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one size fits all solution.
    Plugins generating leads for consulting or custom development, support fees, donations are all definitely viable solutions, but won’t necessarily apply in every case. At the end of the day, a developer may need to realize that writing WordPress plugins just isn’t going to be what pays their salary.
    I could name many large (larger than any WordPress plugin) open source products (that are free of charge) which don’t generate a significant amount of revenue for their developer.

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  2. Support. Send the plugin out into the wild, and support is paid. there will *always* be people willing to pay to ask questions.

    Go look in the regular support forums and see how many threads are about plugins that are really just drop in an go. Still plenty.

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  3. On additional fact to be considered by those advocating support forums, related services like consulting or custom coding, or paid gigs: It doesn’t scale. Almost none of the proposed income sources scale like repeated sales of a piece of software.

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  4. What about a freemium model? The e-Commerce plugin uses this business model. They have a free version and a premium version as well as paid support. That seems to be an agreeable compromise, no?

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  5. Somebody really just needs to challenge the “WordPress is GPL, therefore all plugins must also be GPL” mandate.

    I have serious doubts that a legal challenge against a non-GPL, distributed WP plugin would prevail. The “derivative work” argument is tenuous at best.

    The GPL is great. GPL fascism isn’t. If a coder wants to attempt to make money from his code, that is and should remain his right.

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  6. I totally agree to Chip Bennett’s comment and also think that Kevin did mentioned it well.

    I am as user not willed to pay any price for something that might possibly harm my system, because what most developers forget is that due to the fact they are releasing under GPL they can not be hold for security issues and therefore resulting effects, neither on law nor on moral perspective.

    So how could a developer get into making money out of beloved work?

    Surely not through donations or similar ways which heavily depend on the ‘big spender’ to generate an income that might make a living of it.

    It is surely the own way to operate right, if you decide to keep things real and not only code the great plug-in or theme for our favorite blog/cms-system, if you are able and willed to give support on a fixed rate.

    Personally i have to make the addition, that it wouldn’t and won’t fit my aims as a developer. But i think that is the only way, besides building a small community of your best friends and transform these into partners, to gain profit. Though the last might sound dreamy, isn’t it the way how good and in long term profitable agencies roll up?

    I think it can all be reduced to two aspects:

    a) Any developer who is willed to put strength, time, concentration and love into his/her creation has to realize that the coding itself might be possible as a soloist. The distribution might also be, but the monetizing won’t.

    b) Codes are kids. They have to grow. They leave. We have to accept that. And often these kids die before their creators. And we think of it as ‘that wasn’t well designed’. Would we ever think about kids that way? So finally we have to accept that good code work or even bad, has it’s right to exist but we have to feed it and support it.

    As a conclusion:

    If we think we can ‘create’ and ‘generate’ code we can’t be proud of it. But pride is essentially to live of and off your own work.

    I think it’s just the question of stating a decision. In this case it is the decision of ‘to be willed to take the limitations and do the work needed’ or ‘i just wanna humble around, make some here, some there and please get off me…’.

    Okay, to stay true to the game there is an option left:

    Be normal. Be part of the society. Don’t dream.

    We have to decide…

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  7. I think people miss that fact that you can have a GPL plugin, and you CAN charge for it.

    The freedom doesn’t mean free, it means freedom to do with it what you like.

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  8. @Andrea_R – None of us, to my knowledge, have missed the fact that the GPL does not preclude one from charging for GPLed code.

    However, one very prominent person in the WP community – namely, the (ostensibly) benevolent dictator for life (to borrow a term coined by Mark Shuttleworth, the BDFL of Ubuntu) Matt, has a very clear agenda to discourage WP plugin developers from doing just that. It is patently obvious that Matt does not want developers charging for theme or plugin code.

    The problem, of course, is that Matt is enforcing that position using a specious GPL argument.

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  9. @Kevin – let me take a representative quote from Matt’s 2-hour interview in the special WPWeekly episode back in December:

    http://www.wpsnippets.com/2008/12/transcript-of-wordpress-weeklys-interview-with-matt-mullenweg-december-2008-part-1/#content

    JC: Ok, so here’s the next question: Why is it that so many people within the inner circle of the WordPress community believe you and Automattic don’t want anyone else profiting through or around WordPress? It seems to be this notion, primarily from those who make a living selling premium themes.

    Matt: *laughs* Well, I have said it before that it’s hard to convince anyone that the way that they currently making money is wrong, *laughs* you know, if you are paying your bills with the way you’re making money, you’re going to find ways to rationalise and… sort of believe in that.

    Be sure to read through all three parts. Some of Matt’s opinions on the matter don’t become clear until having read all of his responses.

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  10. Chip,
    It sounds like Matt doesn’t care if you sell themes, plugins, or whatever as long as you don’t try to do it on WordPress.org.

    Obviously however, he is willing to display your themes on WordPress.org if you only charge for support and the theme itself is free.

    Why doesn’t Matt realize that this will ultimately lead to consumers not trusting the designers? What is going to prevent a designer from designing a theme in a way that it REQUIRES support in order to use it?

    And why would a designer choose such a business model when it would require more work on his part to just provide support? That is, he could make just as much, and realistically, probably a lot more money, selling the theme and not providing support. I mean once you build the theme, it’s done; you sell it and make money. The only time required is the time it takes to build it and advertise. If you are only going to make money by supporting it, it’s going to take a lot more time, expenses, and your earnings potential will be much less because support requires hands-on paid work which is also a limiting resource. Selling a theme however, really doesn’t have a limiting resource except for your ability to advertise it I guess. Hence, I don’t see designers adopting this service based business model any time soon.

    Which reminds me…why is the Rev2 ad on WordPress.org no longer there? Did Brian Gardner bail on the whole “Premium Open Source WordPress Themes” idea?

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  11. @Kevin – I also have a problem with the “as long as they don’t do it on wordpress.org” sentiment – *especially* now that plugins and themes hosted on wp.org can be searched/installed from within the admin UI.

    Some enterprising theme/plugin author is going to have to write a plugin to allow for non-wp.org sources to be searched from within the admin UI, or else as time goes on, *only* wp.org (i.e. Matt) sanctioned themes/plugins will ever get any real exposure.

    Also, I have a problem with Matt giving lip service to wp.org being a community-driven website, yet at the same time making unilateral decisions by fiat regarding these issues. I don’t remember the community ever being consulted regarding inclusion of non-GPL (proprietary) or for-cost (premium) themes/plugins in the wp.org directories.

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  12. @Chip
    Community Driven != Community Owned

    Matt doesn’t need to consult with the community of WordPress users to make decisions for a website he owns.
    wptavern.com is a community driven website, but if I go start a thread that Jeff feels is inappropriate, he can certainly delete it. Refer to Jeff’s TOS which say you can’t plug your commercial product/service around the forums. I don’t remember him consulting me on that.

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  13. Personally, as a plugin developer and plugin user, I really like the idea of high quality free plugins. Currently (at least for the foreseeable future) all my plugin are free and available on the WordPress.org repository. The only thing I would then charge for is services (support, customisations etc.). It is too early days yet to know if this is going to generate enough revenue on its own to support full time plugin development.

    I do plan to develop some online/desktop WordPress applications as well as a foray into theme development to provide a more rounded revenue model, but for now is limited to mainly plugins. If I had a very successful plugin and could generate enough revenue then I may not even need to go into theme development but I suspect that may not be possible, but who knows!

    Another route is to join forces (i.e. two or more one-man-band plugin authors), and putting combined resources into a premium plugin or putting all the free plugins in one place and making them very high quality with paid support.

    Fingers crossed that plugin development is possible to do full time.

    If any other plugin developers are in the same position feel free to contact me for further discussion/collaboration etc.

    David

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