Time To Give The GPL A Rest

gpl I think in the past few weeks, I’ve fallen into a trap both here on the blog and on the forum. That trap being the discussion of the GPL license as it relates to WordPress. I was on the fence with regards to publishing Ryan’s guest post but I thought it offered some material which was worthy of discussion. However, I think that guest post will be the last post on the GPL you’ll see from me on the site as well as the forum at least for a little while.

I’ve never seen something debated so much before without a resolution resulting from the discussion. Each time I’ve seen the GPL debated in the WordPress community, I’ve never seen a clear and defined answer at the end. As I’ve read, if there were a court case or two which would swing one way or the other, this probably wouldn’t be such a hot button issue. But since we have no court cases, it seems to me that Joe Schmoe’s interpretation of what the GPL means is no different than John Doe’s interpretation. Until proven otherwise, perhaps both of them could be right when it comes to things not exclusively outlined within the license. But then, even things that are clearly outlined in the license are subject for debate.

Out of the debates and research I’ve read into, here is what I know thus far:

  • You can charge a dollar amount for GPL code.
  • If you want your theme to be in the repository, it needs to be GPL compatible.
  • If you want your plugin to be in the repository, it needs to be GPL compatible.
  • You will not be able to get a plugin or theme into the repository if it’s compliant with the GPL but costs money. WordPress.org supports the work because it’s compliant with the GPL but they do not and will not have a section on the repositories for commercial GPL products.

I’m not a plugin or theme developer, so I don’t have a keen interest on the intricacies of the license but I’m beginning to think about things from the bigger picture and I’m starting to realize that maybe not being GPL compliant whether you’re in the repository or not is a sure sign that you’re interested in the money aspect of things than anything else. I mean, WordPress is released under the GPL which provides legal permission to copy, charge, distribute and/or modify the software. Without these elements, I’m willing to bet the WordPress.org software would not be anywhere close to where it is today. Granted, some other factors have played into the role of the success of WordPress but those legal permissions enabled things to happen.

WordPress is used by millions of people. These people have the ability to modify and redistribute code which they may have learned or improved back to the community which benefits as a whole. With the large userbase, plugin and theme authors have an excellent opportunity to create something unique, offer it to an audience that the freedoms of WordPress have enabled and yet, some of these authors want to take away those freedoms by placing restrictions on the way in which you use their WordPress code. I’m beginning to think that these authors, even though they don’t explicitly state their position, are in this game for the money and couldn’t give a damn about the freedoms for which the foundation of WordPress was built upon, couldn’t give a damn about the WordPress community, and couldn’t give a damn about giving back. But, if you’re a commercial theme author who’s themes are not compliant with the GPL and impose restrictions and you consider giving back ‘releasing a free, GPL compliant theme‘ you really need to look in the mirror and question your ethics. Despite how genuine you might be with this so called method of giving back, there is no way of looking around it as a means of getting more customers to view your commercially restricted products.

At one time, I understood why some theme authors placed these restrictions on their themes as they were afraid of piracy, wanted more control over distribution and how the product was used. Theme piracy has been taking place ever since commercial WordPress themes have been available so why not just align with the license out of gate since your restrictions do nothing to solve the problem but in reality, punish your customers in terms of what they can and can’t do with the product. I’m sick of being slapped in the face by commercial theme authors who put dumb restrictions on themes, especially those ones where I have to pony up an extra $25.00 to remove the link or copyright in the footer. If your product kicks ass and I’m thoroughly pleased with the results, I’m more than willing to showcase the original author of the theme. You don’t have to request, ask, beg, or charge money for me to leave a credit link in the footer, the header, or the CSS file.

For plugin or theme authors which don’t like releasing their creations under the GPL, please read the following quote taken from this forum post:

my plugins and themes will inherit the GPL, and that somebody can certainly (and they do) take them, modify them, redistribute them, etc. If I were adamantly opposed to that happening, I wouldn’t be a WordPress developer. I wouldn’t develop open source software at all. The whole reason the GPL exists is to allow people to use, modify, and/or redistribute the software as they wish.

I’ve seen a few business models which are aligned with the GPL as WordPress sees it and they seem to be doing just fine. The notion that you can’t align with the GPL and have a successful business model is false. So, if your business model as it relates to WordPress is not aligned with the GPL, then that model sucks. How great it must be to learn about WordPress inside and out because the source code is freely available and for theme or plugin authors to tap into this free audience and then build transparent walls around users with their products which is a slap in the face to the WordPress community.

In the end, I say just go with the GPL and be done with it. Don’t look for loopholes, don’t argue what you can and can’t GPL, just be one with the WordPress community and embrace the spirit of open source. Anything else and you’re really just a roadblock.

Initial inspiration for this post can be found here.

12 Comments


  1. You complain about the people who create non-GPL compliant themes and plugins as only being interested in the money, but yet you are quite happy to accept advertising money on WPTavern from sites that promote and/or sell non GPL themes and plugins. Hmm

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  2. @Paul – Hey we got a winner. I published this knowing full well that this would be the type of thing people would immediately latch onto. while I don’t like the way non-gpl themes or plugins do business, the fact is that people don’t seem to care one way or the other and they are willing to spend their money regardless if something is GPL or not as long as they can determine for themselves if it’s a good product, has support and they don’t get screwed.

    Some of these same businesses are helping to pay the bills by purchasing display advertising. Unfortunately, quite a few of these restriction imposing theme businesses or plugin authors are making the money and are the ones purchasing the ad space.

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  3. If people would just eat their own dinner, this wouldn’t happen. I’m all for it.

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  4. *Yawn*

    Every time I see endless debates about licenses and GPL and stuff, I skip. My personal rule of thumb is: once you publish code on the internet, it’s in the wild. Don’t waste your time arguing about so called infringements.

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  5. Jeff, you have an odd way of giving the GPL “a rest”.

    WordPress is used by millions of people. These people have the ability to modify and redistribute code which they may have learned or improved back to the community which benefits as a whole. With the large userbase, plugin and theme authors have an excellent opportunity to create something unique, offer it to an audience that the freedoms of WordPress have enabled and yet, some of these authors want to take away those freedoms by placing restrictions on the way in which you use their WordPress code.

    Not all parts of a theme are “WordPress code”, which is why the debate is both important and necessary. Theme developers certainly don’t have the right to impose non-GPL restrictions on derivative WordPress code; however, they certainly do have the right to release their own, non-WordPress derivative code under whatever license they want.

    I’m beginning to think that these authors, even though they don’t explicitly state their position, are in this game for the money and couldn’t give a damn about the freedoms for which the foundation of WordPress was built upon, couldn’t give a damn about the WordPress community, and couldn’t give a damn about giving back.

    Of course they’re in it for the money. What’s wrong with that?

    In order to develop the quality of themes that are developed, many have to develop themes as a full-time job. In order to do so, they need to be able to make a living from that work. So, of course they’re in it for the money. Not everyone has the luxury of “supporting” themselves with $30MM in venture capital.

    And, I would say that enough of a constituency of the WordPress community are quite happy enough with their work to make it profitable – and for that constituency, I would hazard a guess that they believe that the theme developers both “care about” them and are “giving back” quite nicely.

    But, if you’re a commercial theme author who’s themes are not compliant with the GPL and impose restrictions and you consider giving back ‘releasing a free, GPL compliant theme‘ you really need to look in the mirror and question your ethics. Despite how genuine you might be with this so called method of giving back, there is no way of looking around it as a means of getting more customers to view your commercially restricted products.

    See, here you’re starting to drift into Richard Stallman GPL evangelism/fascism, by getting into the whole argument that the product itself doesn’t matter, but rather the motive behind it is more important – that the (always subjective and ethereal) “spirit” of the GPL is more important than the letter of the GPL.

    I call shenanegins.

    The GPL is the GPL, as defined by the words contained in the license. The GPL does not require an author to embrace every tenet of open-source philosophy (including the RMS kook-fringe elements of that philosophy) in order to be used. A developer who contributes a fully GPL-compliant theme is giving back to the community, regardless of any actual or perceived motive behind that contribution. Period. End of story.

    To call into question the ethics of a developer in that circumstance is beyond the pale.

    There is nothing wrong – whatsoever – with a coder retaining copyright over code that he writes. That RMS believes that code is not copyright-able is, quite frankly, both a stupid and an irrelevant position. Likewise, there is nothing wrong – whatsoever – with making money from one’s on work developing code. In fact, as you pointed out, the GPL explicitly allows for such. Further, there is nothing wrong or unethical – whatsoever – with choosing to release one’s code under a license other than GPL.

    I’ve seen a few business models which are aligned with the GPL as WordPress sees it and they seem to be doing just fine. The notion that you can’t align with the GPL and have a successful business model is false. So, if your business model as it relates to WordPress is not aligned with the GPL, then that model sucks.

    Who are you (who am I? who are any of us?) to tell a developer that his business model sucks? What hubris such a declaration requires. If such a business model is legal, ethical, and successful, then I’d disagree with the assertion that it “sucks”.

    How great it must be to learn about WordPress inside and out because the source code is freely available and for theme or plugin authors to tap into this free audience and then build transparent walls around users with their products which is a slap in the face to the WordPress community.

    WordPress can’t have it’s cake and eat it, too. It is released under the GPL, which means that it has decided to make its source code freely available. The WP community can’t then complain when others use that availability to their advantage.

    In the end, I say just go with the GPL and be done with it. Don’t look for loopholes, don’t argue what you can and can’t GPL, just be one with the WordPress community and embrace the spirit of open source. Anything else and you’re really just a roadblock.

    Wait, no. Words mean things. The wording of the GPL means something. The issue is that those who have released WordPress under the GPL are trying to impose on others restrictions that go beyond the license. If further restrictions were desired, then WP should have been released under a license that allowed for those restrictions.

    Further, I would challenge the assertion that non-GPL theme developers are a “roadblock”, given that their work continues to be wildly successful – that is, people continue to purchase their themes in droves.

    Some of these same businesses are helping to pay the bills by purchasing display advertising. Unfortunately, quite a few of these restriction imposing theme businesses or plugin authors are making the money and are the ones purchasing the ad space.

    Paul “latched onto” this issue, as well he should have. Your stance with respect to your advertising is the epitome of hypocrisy, in light of the stance you have taken in this blog post regarding GPL.

    If non-GPL developers’ business models suck, then so too must your business model suck, since you depend on income generated by their business models to drive advertising money to WPTavern. So, either you don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with having a business model that sucks, or else you believe that having a business model that sucks is wrong yet you use the model anyway. In either case, the stance is hypocritical.

    If you truly believe what you wrote in this blog post, then you would not accept ad money from non-GPL theme developers.

    (Personally, I think you’re painting yourself into an unnecessary box. I have no inherent problem either with non-GPL theme developers, or with you generating ad income from them.)

    And going back to my first sentence: why write such an inflammatory post if your intent is to give the issue “a rest”?

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  6. I think we could possibly end this by contacting GNU GPL and getting there view. They do handle this kind of stuff and they know the GPL best, because it’s what they do and love. There is no way the average person can solve this riddle and end it and lawyers aren’t going to know the in’s and out’s of programming and the GPL license, so they can’t know for sure. Would anyone be willing to contact GNU GPL and get their say?

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  7. @Dan Cole

    I’m guessing you’re referring to the Free Software Foundation (FSF)?

    Contacting FSF won’t settle things any more definitively, because they (naturally) take a very liberal (i.e. expansive) view of the GNU GPL as possible. Their take on the license is just like anyone else’s: just their opinion. Even on their FAQ, they take some positions that I seriously doubt will stand up against a court challenge. Their position can even be considered to be self-contradictory. Consider this example:

    A company is running a modified version of a GPL’ed program on a web site. Does the GPL say they must release their modified sources?

    The GPL permits anyone to make a modified version and use it without ever distributing it to others. What this company is doing is a special case of that. Therefore, the company does not have to release the modified sources.

    It is essential for people to have the freedom to make modifications and use them privately, without ever publishing those modifications. However, putting the program on a server machine for the public to talk to is hardly “private” use, so it would be legitimate to require release of the source code in that special case. Developers who wish to address this might want to use the GNU Affero GPL for programs designed for network server use.

    So which is it? Does the company not have to release the source, or can someone compel the company to release the source?

    Until it gets tested in court, nothing will be settled definitively. FSF’s opinion certainly doesn’t carry any more weight than anyone else’s (legally speaking).

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  8. @Chip Bennett – I debated whether or not to leave comments open or closed on this post. I think I should have left them closed.

    And going back to my first sentence: why write such an inflammatory post if your intent is to give the issue “a rest”?

    Because I’ve never taken sides regarding this matter and up until now, I’ve kept most of my feelings of what I’ve been seeing to myself. So I decided to get the way I feel about things off my chest and move on.

    I’m done and so is this post.

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