The WordPress subreddit lit up this week with reports of MemberPress locking users out of the plugin’s admin if they do not renew their subscriptions. MemberPress is a popular membership plugin for WordPress. It is a commercial-only plugin starting at $179/year for one site, and there is no free version.
Reddit user @hamsternose opened the discussion with a first-hand account of having gotten locked out:
So I just discovered that MemberPress has changed its subscription model and will now cease to work the second your license expires and you need to reticence to get it working again.
This is the first WordPress plugin I have come across that works this way and I can’t say I am a fan. I support keeping plugins updated but I don’t believe this should be forced as it pretty much locks users in to meeting whatever price demands a developer chooses.
Is this the way forwards for WordPress Plugin developers now?
MemberPress’ updated renewal policy is clearly outlined in the plugin’s docs about what happens when a user’s subscription ends. The most controversial action is that customers will no longer “have access to any of the MemberPress admin screens.” The policy states:
Essentially, you’ll be able to keep using MemberPress on the front end of your site indefinitely when your subscription ends. However, you won’t be able to access the plugin’s admin screens or functions. Unless you renew, we’ll also no longer be able to support any changes or additions to your site.
Cutting off access to the plugin’s admin screens leaves users without the ability to manage the membership functions of their sites if their subscriptions lapse. This prevents users from doing things like issuing customer refunds, adding new members, managing memberships and site activations, among other actions.
This unorthodox approach is surprising in contrast to most other commercial plugins’ renewal policies, which usually terminate support and updates for those who do not renew. Cutting off functionality in this fashion could be especially problematic for agencies managing websites for clients using MemberPress. It’s something critical to business operations and prospective customers should be aware that the policy is markedly different from most other commercial WordPress products.
“I can understand a ‘no more updates for you’ policy, but shutting down something you paid for (at least once) is not good,” web developer Mauro Bono said in response to Post Status proposing WordPress businesses create a trade association to govern practices like this and admin notification infringements.
“I think companies should be allowed to do it, but I think the community will speak with its feet and move to a product that doesn’t do this kind of thing,” Trew Knowledge Sr. Product Owner Malcolm Peralty said. “It’s all about balance and I think this swings too far away from what I feel is ‘fair.’”
The GPL permits companies to sell open source software. In this case users are also purchasing, perhaps unknowingly, the code that shuts the plugin’s admin functions off as soon as they don’t pay up to renew. Some may consider this a questionable business practice in the WordPress ecosystem but it doesn’t violate the license.
In 2017, David Marín Carreño from the Spanish WordPress community, contacted the Free Software Foundation (FSF) regarding similarly structured business models for plugins. He asked if it is permissible for a plugin author to distribute a plugin under the GPL but lock access to some of the features using a validation code, which checks against a remote server. The FSF responded:
The GPL doesn’t prohibit locks or schemes such as these, as long as the recipient of the software can modify or remove them as per the terms of the GPL. It isn’t the lock itself that is prohibited; it’s restricting others from studying, modifying, or removing that lock that the GPL prohibits. It would also be a violation of the GPL to add licensing terms which prohibit the recipient of the software from removing such feature-lock schemes.
Despite the FSF validating the business model, many find the practice to be unsavory, as evident from the comments on the Reddit post. In a post titled The WordPress Way, Jason Coleman, co-founder and CEO of the Paid Memberships Pro (PMP) plugin, one of MemberPress’ chief competitors, seemed to indirectly address MemberPress’ renewal policy, saying some companies “begrudgingly apply the GPL license to their code.” Coleman described what he perceives to be “the WordPress way:”
Doing things the WordPress way means making all of our software free and open source, just like the core WordPress software.
It means the plugins we write to integrate with other plugins and third parties are hosted in the WordPress.org repository because that will incentivize both parties to maintain the plugin.
It means our code will continue to work as expected if your paid license expires.
It means providing simple one-line code solutions to disable our upsells or extra gateway fees.
It means using the WordPress coding standards so our code is more readable to developers used to reading WordPress-based code.
MemberPress founder Blair Williams has not yet responded to our requests for comment. There may be a reason or chain of experiences that led him to this renewal policy but the plugin’s documentation doesn’t elaborate on it.
In light of the recent discussions on Reddit and Twitter, Coleman’s promises to customers illuminates MemberPress and PMP’s contrasting values and business principles. This may be compelling for MemberPress customers who are looking for a different plugin after learning of the updated renewal policy.
“If a decision comes down to something that will make the software better and something that will make us more money, we choose the option that makes the software better,” Coleman said.
“For us that means embracing open source and the WordPress way, making our software available for free to get the most users and contributors, and building a business on top of the software we are making by adding value instead of artificially limiting our software and selling the cure.”