MemberPress Plugin Is Locking Users Out After Support License Expires

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.”

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33 responses to “MemberPress Plugin Is Locking Users Out After Support License Expires”

  1. If it’s the Reddit thread I think it is……..I commented on it.

    This is completely wrong. I have bought many themes over the years (most from themeforest)……..the themeforest……to this day I still get “there is a new update”. It could be a themeforest thing. I moved on from those themes.

    When you pay for a theme/plugin, you usually get 12 months. Themeforest had that too but then it reduced it to 6 months. If anyone knows why, tell me.

    Anyways, when you pay for the theme/plugin and you get the 12 motnhs……….after that, if you chose not to renew for whatever reason…….you don’t get support/updates for the most part (except that themeforest thing above).

    Someone should fork MemberPress and remove the locking part. Technically speaking allowed under GPL. Obviously rename the fork, upload it on the WordPress repository.

  2. It would be prudent for all of us to wait until Blair has a chance to fairly respond before arriving at any conclusions.

    In the meantime, if it should turn out to be true that MemberPress intentionally executed this strategy, it would demonstrate two things:

    1) A fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship and bargain they have with their customers. It would be an understatement to say that locking out current premium customers the moment their subscriptions end, on an Open Source WordPress plugin, demonstrates a complete lack of respect or common sense. Over and over we’ve seen WP companies try to change the nature of their bargain with existing customers without warning, loyalty or “thinking it through”. Every time it creates a huge backlash that hurts sales or causes an embarrassing roll back.

    2) Membership plugins like MemberPress are no longer needed when using a modern marketing automation “stack”. This stack typically includes WooComerce, WPFusion, and any of 54 popular CRM’s with “tags” to manage user access control over content. With such a stack, there’s simply nothing left for a membership plugin to do.

    This report, if true, would just add an additional “cautionary tale” as to why one should consider leaving out any membership plugin from a modern WordPress site.

    • Could you please elaborate on “Membership plugins like MemberPress are no longer needed when using a modern marketing automation “stack”. This stack typically includes WooComerce, WPFusion, and any of 54 popular CRM’s with “tags” to manage user access control over content. With such a stack, there’s simply nothing left for a membership plugin to do.” ?
      Which CRM plugin would you use for a business-oriented site in this case?

      • FluentCRM is our favorite choice for a plugin CRM solution, and it works brilliantly with WooCommerce and all the accessories of that ecosystem. Basically eliminates the need for a membership plugin when using tags to protect content (with or without WPFusion).

    • As an amateur, I don’t know what you mean by a “stack”. Marketing automation? I think I have a concept of what that is, but as a relatively new maintainer of a few grassroots sites, that is a new concept to me. I don’t sell products, I share actions information, publicize events (usually free), and encourage discussion. One of my groups collects annual dues, and is just tiptoeing into accepting digital payments.

      • For your needs, just use FluentCRM plus WooCommerce and you’re done. People onboard by buying a product or submitting a form, they then are given access to content that is protected by tags. An elegant my account dashboard is provided by WooCommerce that has thousands of extensions for free or paid.

        • Maybe I’m wrong (I’m a longtime MemberPress user) but to really lock down content you’ll have to pay for some features of both WooCommerce and FluentCRM.

          I’m not sure a truly free option for content protection exists. Yes, Paid Memberships Pro and other CMS plugins have free versions, but there are limitations.

          • The cost of FluentCRM (retail without sale) is $129/yr and WPFusion is $247/yr (retail without sale). Both are often on sale for 25% or more off, and have renewal discounts if you stay. So worse case, $376/yr for an incredibly powerful combination that does literally a hundred things you can’t do with MemberPress, run by two owners (Jack Arturo and Shahjahan Jewel) who, in my opinion, honor the spirit of the GPL and their loyal audience members as treasures. Given the allegations of this article, the peace of mind of knowing how your business will not be held “hostage” or your loyalty disregarded, would be worth the difference of a couple hundred dollars…let alone how many other things you can do with the combo than you can with MemberPress.

            • I’ve used MemberPress for years. I’m not a fanboy… it gets the job done and I’m paying a couple hundred bucks a year for all I need. Sounds like the Woo/FluentCRM (or any similar combo) would cost me more.

              I guess if MP shut me off for non-payment I wouldn’t be shocked. This is actually how CMS’s also work: after a payment is declined the subscriber no longer has access.

              The fact that MP still allows things to work on the FRONT end is good. My fear is that I wake up to hundreds of emails from subscribers who are locked out. Doesn’t sound like that would be the case if my MemberPress license expires.

              To their credit, I do get a notice when my MP license will be renewed. This gives me time to update payment info.

  3. That would surely be a deal-breaker for me, whether I chose to continue the subscription or not. I hope that it was at least clear in the documentation when folks chose the plug-in; I think (and hope) I would notice something like that; I am pretty good about checking terms, etc., though I realize that many are not especially careful.

  4. This is un-ethical. Although free updates from Themeforest / Codecanyon for Lifetime (literally) is also unsustainable for authors and a failing business, so many quality authors have called it quits ! I have 2 points to say : Firstly, when WordPress makes platform changes in the entire software tech stack , the plugin+theme developers are required to re-develop their products so as to not get obsolete. Some would simply stop, as the costs of re-development far outweigh the remaining lifetime value of their products. Secondly, we are already aware of so many entrepreneurs facing covid / post-covid “Fatigue”, “Burnouts” which led to the sellouts of their businesses. It might be that they are planning to create a profitable business model only to sell out to some investors.

  5. Nice way to shoot yourself in the foot. Thankfully I’m using Paid Memberships Pro in a couple of membership sites I built.

  6. Can the article mention this is the work of the company behind this: Retyp by Syed Balkhi, owning many other plugins like WPForms, AIOSEO, AffiliateWP, EasyDigitalDownloads.
    He has an history of dishonnest marketing on the top of that.

    • I know the name only from WP Beginner, which I find has a lot of good information, one of my first places to go for a quick answer and/or a article listing hosts, plug-ins for a particular purpose, etc.

  7. I am a customer of Memberpress. If they really want to go this way. I think it’s time to go for other membership plugins for the next sites.

  8. This feels like an overreaction to unofficial distribution of their premium products (see: GPL marketplaces). I’m surprised the topic wasn’t addressed in the article since it’s a wildly rampant problem in the premium WordPress product space.

    I’m not saying I agree with the approach, but speaking as someone who spent 5 years building premium WordPress products, I can certainly empathize with why MemberPress might feel like they need to go down this path to protect their business.

  9. I know a few who recently moved from LearnDash to MemberPress and suggested I use it, but I discarded it when I noticed it belonged to Awesome Motive.

    Currently, I am testing Sensei, and I find it a good LMS. Easy Digital Downloads and AffiliateWP are plugins I cancelled the renewals when they announced they sold to Awesome Motive and have already replaced.

    At this time, I rely primarily on plugins directly tied to either WordPress or WooCommerce instead (meaning Automattic), and plugins I know the devs behind it, that are maintained by small independent ventures and have a bright future ahead.

    This kind of thing happening with one of their plugins is unethical, not illegal, but lacks consciousness.

    Each time a plugin does something that I consider unethical, enforced, or even increases its price significantly, my action is to find a suitable replacement, migrate the data, and remove the plugin while having the new thoroughly replacing it without further ado.

  10. Maybe I’m on the outside here, but if a plugin that costs $179/year is a core part of your business model, you maybe you should consider the ongoing cost of updates and support as part of the viability model.

    When we recommend plugins to our customers or include them as part of website builds we build the ongoing cost as a part of our proposals because you never know when a critical core update is going to break something or it’s more cost effective to drop that ticket to support then try and muck around and find the answer yourself.

    • I think most of us already consider the ongoing cost of updates and support as part of our viability model. It isn’t that we’re trying to use unlicensed plugins. It’s that we prefer to pay for plugins from teams who aren’t actively seeking to break our sites the moment our license expires.

      There is a huge difference between a plugin who’s attitude is “As long as you’re paying us we’ll continue to help you” and one instead says “You had better keep paying me or else I’ll hurt you.”

      Thankfully I cancelled my MemberPress subscription the moment I found out Awesome Motive got involved.

  11. I hope we get an explanation for sure on this. That is just plain rude and a full on bad business module.

    I could not getting new updates if you do not pay but a full not being able to use the plugin period is an all time new low.

  12. If memberpress didn’t do this and instead added an additional transaction fee, would this even be a blog post? Because I switched from PMP to MP due to their extra transaction fees. Once you break about $50k in annual membership sales, any membership plug-in with a revenue share or extra transaction fee doesn’t scale well when compared to a fully supported MP subscription. This kinda smells like a paid hit piece by PMP.

    • For me, it is the suddenness of the cut-off, with no access if renewal is not paid. Give folks some sort of limited access for a transition, warn them ahead (which may or may not have been done, IDK), etc. This sounds like the terms of service suddenly changed so that those who were not renewing each time, but periodically, were suddenly cut off from all their stored data.

      Also, even if the usability was to be cut off suddenly, the past data should be avaiable for at least a reasonable transition period—90 days? 60? IDK, maybe scale with the amount of data.

    • Hi, Marco. Since we integrated with Stripe Connect last year, we did add a 1% fee on top of transactions processed through unlicensed PMPro sites. It should be pretty clear by the notifications in our settings and docs on our site that those fees are waived for paying members and there is even a single line of code you can add to your site to waive the fees without a paid license.

      We put off integrating with Stripe Connect or charging these fees for a couple years, but in that time it became a standard practice among WP plugins (even some owned or invested in by Awesome Motive) and so we’ve adopted it. The fees we collect this way help to fund development and the maintenance of the server we need to run to facilitate the Stripe Connect process.

      If anyone needs help to waive that fee, reach out to the PMPro contact form and they will help you.

  13. Wedevs project manager pro does this I posted a review about this “feature” (https://wordpress.org/support/topic/be-cautious-of-the-pro-upgrades-you-must-pay-to-keep-data/). It is a horrible business practice. It seems like a really desperate move.
    The current WP way is when you purchase a plugin you are purchasing the code as-is, with updates as long as you renew your subscription. Not renewing is a bad idea as you’ll miss out on new features and security patches to the code you have purchased (I say you have purchased the code as-is as you are able to view, edit, or never use updates or new features. It’s yours as long as you follow the GPL). This is the way WP plugins have worked and how people expect them to work.

    People that have experience with plugins are expecting this approach to how their plugin will work in the future. There are not that many people that are going to read the docs on what happens if I do not renew my subscription. Why, because of their experience with past WP plugins.

    If the goal is to change the idea of you owning the software as-is and turning plugins into actual pay-for-access subscription models. If that is the case, the fact that if you do not renew your subscription you will lose access to your data should be posted clearly and easily visible on the pricing page. It is not (https://memberpress.com/plans/pricing/).

    Most people that are using MemberPress have experience with other plugins and have an expectation of how a plugin should work. I pay once for the code as-is. I get a year of updates and support. If I do not renew my subscription I lose future updates and support. Which can be a bad thing, but I keep access to my data.

    That is the point to me that should be made very clear with plugins like this. It’s the loss of your data, and for most people that have not taken the time to read the docs on not renewing. It is a shock to log in one day and not have access to your data.

    • agreed
      It is the way software used to work decades ago: I bought Aldus PageMaker 2 to do layout for a side-business magazine (Scarlet Street: the Magazine of Mystery & Horror), may have skipped 1 or more, but at some point decided to upgrade—usually, sad to say, just before I would have had to rebuy the entire program. Then I bought InDesign as an upgrade when Adobe took over, by which time I was a freelance editor, again purchased when it made sense based on features and current cash flow. I was in control. Got off the path by buying InDesign CS4, the last nonsubscription stand-alone—could not justify a monthly subscription when it was not the main focus of my work. I kept an old 2011 computer going until recently purchasing the Affinity Publisher programs for flat fees—yes, I will again have to pay for upgrades at some point, but it is again my decision if/when to do that—as a retiree doing work for grassroots groups, it is purely my choice based on features and if I need to share documents with others.
      Admittedly, for Internet software, there is a security component that does not figure into a program that resides on one’s own computer.

  14. My issue with this is that I haven’t received any communication from MemberPress about this change. I just did a search through my email (I delete very little) and there is nothing about it.

    I must have missed something, right? Because you wouldn’t just make a major change like this without giving adequate warning…..

  15. I received an email from MemberPress that my renewal payment failed on April 19. As of today, May 3, I still have access to the backend MemberPress area and all of the settings. I just checked 5 minutes ago.

    Since then, I’ve received numerous emails from them telling me I need to renew. It’s like the moment you don’t renew, you are getting locked out. I’ve received plenty of notice.

    They are giving people at least 2 weeks of noticed after their payment fails before locking them out. That’s my experience anyway.

  16. Well, we consumers always vote with our wallets, don’t we? I’d try to find an alternative ASAP after such a change.

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