When Commercial Themes Bundle Commercial Plugins, Users Lose

Coen Jacobs developer for WooThemes has used his personal site to vent about commercial themes bundling commercial plugins. There were at least two themes hosted on the ThemeForest marketplace that were bundling commercial WooThemes plugins along with a copy of GravityForms. Those themes have been temporarily hidden from view by ThemeForest until they comply with revised guidelines. This is a great article filled with a number of great points but the comments are just as good.

It’s Just A Bad Idea – Bundling plugins with themes is already a bad practice but when those plugins have a commercial nature to them and need API access keys to work properly, it becomes an incredibly bad idea.

Support Nightmare – I love the infinite loop for support described by Coen so much, I’m just going to paste it here as it clearly illustrates how bad it can be for users to get support.

  1. The author of the plugin is WooThemes. “They should help me, right?”
  2. Wrong, they can’t help you. You haven’t purchased the plugin from WooThemes, so they can’t support you. This is not just because you haven’t purchased it from them, but they also have no way of knowing what’s been done with the code. This makes it virtually impossible to support the code.
  3. The WooThemes support crew will probably tell you to ask the theme author.
  4. The theme author has no real ways of supporting the plugins they bundle with the theme, simply because they didn’t write the plugin.
  5. The initial response of the theme author is often to contact the author of the plugin. Resume these steps at #1, infinite loop!

GPL – People are still confused when they see a theme or plugin licensed under the GPL and then see licenses that specify the number of websites the plugin can be used on. Being licensed under the GPLv2 means the code is freely available and can be modified or redistributed. During the checkout process, if the word restrict is in the description it generates red flags. It’s important to note that most commercial GPL theme/plugin licenses deal strictly with how many sites will be supported by them based on which support license you buy. In some instances such as GravityForms, you’re not only purchasing a support license, but also an API access key that provides access to updates and other functionality. The API aspects of GravityForms have nothing to do with GPL. As Carl Hancock points out, look at Akismet, VaultPress, or WordPress.com as good examples of plugins that are GPL but the features they offer are through an API/service which is not accessible because it’s a software as a service model.

It’s important to note that redistributing any themes or plugins licensed under the GPL commercial or not for free or for a price is completely within the confines of the license as long as proper attribution is maintained and the copyright notice is left in tact. What the two themes on ThemeForest were doing was not illegal.

Abuse Of The Unlimited Sites License – This is an interesting one. Using GravityForms as an example, if you buy the unlimited sites option, you’ll have support for unlimited sites, support multi-site, have unlimited forms, unlimited entries, 1 year of updates, etc. According to Simone, team leader of Your Inspiration Themes, they had purchased a Developer License granting them the ability to install GravityForms on an unlimited amount of sites. They were bundling GravityForms with their themes but in order for customers to receive upgrades, they would push out a new theme update which included the newest version of GravityForms.

I have to give Simone credit for coming up with a somewhat creative way of being able to offer GForms updates without their theme customers needing to have an individual access key. However, because of how GravityForms works, they have the ability to turn off keys if they discover they  are used in such a way that violates their TOS.

Not Getting What You Paid For – According to Simone, by bundling plugins like GForms in their themes, they are offering value. In reality, the are offering headaches. The following paragraph in Simone’s response is important to take note of.

Keep in mind that we are not re-selling the plugins and above all we don’t provide key licenses to our customers. When an update of those plugins is released, we will as soon as possible release a new theme update with the new version of the plugin. We know how important is to keep updated the WordPress installation.

When customers buy their themes, they’re not actually buying the plugins that are bundled with them. If that’s the case, why bother bundling the plugins at all? The only conclusion I can come to is that they are ripping off GravityForms and others while providing so called value to their customers.


I hope YIT and ThemeForest have both learned their lesson in this ordeal. ThemeForest needs to tighten up its theme reviewing process. YIT needs to remove the commercial plugins until they can strike a unique reseller deal with both GForms and WooThemes. Since Simone claims their themes sold well without having any plugins, I hope they remove them because the overall practice of bundling plugins with themes is stupid.


11 responses to “When Commercial Themes Bundle Commercial Plugins, Users Lose”

  1. Code can be redistributed, regardless of whether clever redistribution hacks are involved, support from the people who created the plugin cannot.

    No need for anyone to stress out – people who pay for themes are a valuable minority, exposing those potential customers to an unsupported version of the plugin is GOOD for the plugin creators. Carl might not be eager to buy a pint for the Your Inspiration Themes guys, but I very much doubt that this situation keeps him awake at night.

    This comment was written on a ferry in the middle of the sea between Ireland and Scotland – how fucking cool is that!

  2. Bundling a plugin with a theme is indeed a-bad-idea, but note that this is different than a theme adding extra functional support for use with a specific plugin.

    I’m working on a special-case theme at the moment, and I plan on providing additional functionality in it for use with a specific plugin that fits the use-case nicely. Using the plugin will be optional, but it will detect whether or not the plugin is installed and if not, suggest to the user to install it, for additional functionality.

  3. @Otto +1 – This scenario has always been a concern with me. How to add functionality to a theme but keep the functionality and the theme separate and yet have both function separately. I like the idea of the theme suggesting installation of a plugin for added benefit. If the plugin could then also work independently of the theme, Hallelujah to that.

  4. @donnacha

    This comment was written on a ferry in the middle of the sea between Ireland and Scotland – how fucking cool is that!

    River Ribble, 1066-1760. As cool as it gets!

  5. Great news that ThemeForest is looking at this issue because it may get out of control – seen more of it lately as Theme devs feel they have to do it to compete in that market place.

    All that will come of it in the end is that we will all get a bad name out of it. Coens comment about the infinite support Loop is right on the money – As WooThemes extension developers (WooCommerce Compare Products plugin) I have had first hand experience of a certain ThemeForrest Theme dev who purchased a Woothemes support License for the plugin and then bundled the script into a theme.

    Then they come direct to use wanting support – of course we just sent them directly back to WooThemes where they purchased the License.

    Here is the rub – of course they can take and do what they like with the script – maintain it, alter it whatever, but what they have been doing is when a Theme Client posts a support request about the script on their support forum they them that they will get the script devs to fix it (us). As was stated we have no idea what they have done with the code and no intention of touching it for them.

    Bundling is a bad practice that in the long run will hurt all of us – Theme buyers and plugin developers alike.

  6. If said GF or similar plugin is in the theme directory (and you keep your theme updated by the WP update mechanism) could you not make a plugin that loads the ‘up to date’ plugin from the themes directory using the useful wp_plugin_dir() functions?

    Basically without even using the theme directly someone could enable the use of gravity forms (or similar) and use the most up to date version as the theme permits.

    Entirely peculiar that ‘free’ has become as infectious as ‘copyright’ through use of copyright. I suppose it’s just delightful that one does not have an edge over the other.

  7. @donnacha – The only thing that was debated and something for which I couldn’t find an answer to is whether the GPL v2 allowed people to redistribute works without any modifications to the author or simply, masquerading as someone else.

    @Otto – Well, now that you’ve explained your special use case, I have to admit that I’m completely ok with your implementation. Better to build in enhanced functionality that is only enabled after a plugin is downloaded and installed versus bundling the plugin in the theme and building the functionality so that the plugin is required.

    @Steve Truman – Yeah your comment is right on the money. As I read the terms of service for gravity forms, they mention that the key holder is exclusively not allowed to redistribute forum support or other documentation to prevent this type of behaviour from happening.

    @Mike – Not sure where your going with your comment. Are you trying to describe a method in obtaining the latest version of GravityForms without using the required API Key?

  8. @Jeffro – Yes exactly.

    I’m not condoning this practice I’m just saying it can be done. And because it can be done (within the attention that the theme developer puts in to keep a included commercial plugin up to date in their theme). Perhaps a rethink is needed or at least attention needs to be had by those using a similar model to GF in the future.


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