There’s a huge hype these days around WordPress and the (infamous?) GPL license. Out of the “big guys”, first Brian Gardner of StudioPress (ex-Revolution) decided to distribute his themes as GPL. Later, iThemes followed, and now it’s time for WooThemes to adopt the license.

The discussion around this always seems to evolve into “open source” versus “author protection”. As Alex King pointed out in one of his posts, theme authors should be aware of what the GPL license exposes them too, while it provides freedom for basically everyone else.

I’m not by any means against freedom and open source. I’ve been preaching about the power of WordPress and the wonder that it is, but what I love more is to see a protection system for those authors that make a living out of releasing quality themes and plugins for WordPress. Somewhere along the way, in our quest for “freedom” we forgot how hard it is to earn our living, how hard it is to learn the things we now use to feed our families.

With all the respect I have for Brian, Adii and Alex who have been more than an inspiration for so many people and their contributions to the world of WordPress changed our lives, I fail to see how this sudden change of heart (or maybe “dictated” by Matt Mullenweg’s recent reactions) will help other developers.

The problem does not reside in the GPL license, but rather in the fact that by using WordPress you have to also release your “products” under this license. In theory the GPL license is an amazing thing that allows people to improve and build upon other people’s work, and thus contributing to the development of a bigger, better product, free or paid.

The problem comes when commercial work can be distributed for free, once you get your hands on it. Brian and Alex both agree on the fact that most times, people come back to get support after getting pirated or unsupported versions of their work. Is this a good business model? Yes, if you are Brian, or Alex, or Adii. For those thriving in this poor economical moment the GPL license and its enforcing is like a hammer in the head.

While I totally agree with the ability of being able to contribute and improve software, I can’t stop thinking about those who will try and benefit for the work of developers, and not in a GPL-ish open source friendly way. Some developers don’t have the brand and support of thousands of bloggers that Alex, Brian or Adii have to fight these entitled-to-be pirates.

Can’t get the reality of this comment Alex received on his blog out of my mind:

But me, being an unknow guy from Mexico who is trying hard to make a living and if I released my work under GPL and you, The Alex King, repost my work for free, nobody will care who I am or if I’m having difficulties paying the rent.

Sure: “GPL ftw!” “Yay freedom” “That’s the spirit of the opensource” that is all b*****it if somebody use that freedom to take away food from my table.

I like opensource, but I prefer my three meals a day.

I’ve already release 2 of my works for free, the Simple Balance theme and the Latest Posts by Category plugin, plan to release another one pretty soon and I for one believe in helping as much as I can the others. But that’s the whole point: AS MUCH AS I CAN or AFFORD TO.

Developers are “forced” to find different business models: donations, updates, support. Again, all works well when you’re on top, otherwise the donation/support model is worth nothing. I’ve never expected huge donations for Simple Balance and I was right. 15.000 downloads later (with no promotion through the directory) the amount of donations is… $75. I can celebrate by renting a 3* room in a hotel in my city. At the same time I’ve lost count of the support requests, some of them starting like this: “This is URGENT, you must help me do X”. No, I don’t, especially if your communication skills are well below ZERO.

The only feasible business model under GPL is making a name for yourself. Don’t doubt it. As long as people will have the possibility of getting something for free. WordPress has to come up with a way to support ALL honest developers, not just the big names and those looking to make a quick buck. Even if that means an additional commercial license for WordPress, for those looking to be able to sell their products without the “limitations” of GPL. May it be a single-usage license or percent of the sale, this could be a good alternative and if I’d ever decide (which should be my decision) to release a commercial product, I’d gladly share my profits with this amazing platform that is WordPress.

Until then, some will only see the joys of GPL while others will see their own failure to make an honest living with the skills they’ve trained so hard and for so long. Unfortunately, there’s no middle way, at least for the masses, but I’m definitely looking forward for what Matt is preparing for those who embrace the GPL license.

12 comments on “My Take on the WordPress Themes & the GPL License

  • it’s a tension, that’s for sure. i think you’re comments speak volumes for those that aren’t that “big”.

    and perhaps the “tension” is what makes it so meaningful, at the end of the day…

  • John, I’m not trying to go on either sides. It’s just that some people tend to forget that what comes easy for them, doesn’t come as easy for others. We talk about open source, but what about open chances?

    Sometimes, many are left with the impression that after the business has succeeded it’s easy to follow the GPL train. That’s were the tension comes from. I just hope that (since all this starts with them) WordPress will come up with a model to help and encourage both sides, and why not, also make a profit out of it.

  • Alex, while I can certainly appreciate the frustration (we sold a premium theme over at before we sold the site) you’re complaining about the licensing agreement that you agree to when building on the WP platform.

    If you don’t like the terms, don’t develop for WordPress. It’s that simple.

    I really don’t understand how this is such a big controversy.

  • Ben, the controversy comes from the fact that some people don’t only “develop” for WP. Some people design for WP too and that work is forced to go under WP’s GPL, without making use of WP’s code or template tags.

    There are many possible answers and solutions to this (protecting your work and making a profit on GPL) but most of them lead to my previous statement. You need to make a name for yourself in order to make a profit.

    I will explore some of these options in a future post, because there are many people whose daily food depends on them.

  • Alex, being the “small-time theme designer” I certainly see your points. To me, you have four options (if you want to develop themes for WordPress):

    1. Dual licensing. License the design separately from the theme code. The CSS has nothing to do with the PHP functions used in your template files, same with images. Those can carry completely separate licenses, even if they are packaged together.

    2. Ignore WordPress’ license. Place your themes under whatever license you want. No one is going to come after you. People will still do whatever they want with your themes, if they’re good enough.

    3. Build child themes. The argument here is that if done properly, child themes can completely avoid hooking into WordPress code and thus can be licensed completely separately (since they would technically be just CSS/images/Javascript). Pick your framework, Thematic, Thesis, Hybrid, whatever. Go nuts.

    4. Make themes for Joomla. Yuck.

  • I am wondering why then you dont change CMS for which you design? There are not people and money around it? You can not earn enough?

    GPL is not about money, its about contributing and making something available to all people.

  • I have a small blog, and I am enrolled in a web design course right now, so this is very interesting to me. I am looking at options for having a career. One of those options I thought was creating WordPress themes.

    I understand the whole license thing, but I also understand that I have spent $7000.00 to take a course on how to create websites, templates, and premium templates using css etc..

    I don’t understand why people think that what some people have chosen for a career should be given away for free. Chris wallace as an example.. I have used some of his free child themes, and have recommended his “premium” or pro themes to others. His themes are great looking and must have taken a while to design. When looking at the themes you realize that he is at the very least knowledgeable when it comes to design. Shouldn’t he be compensated for the number of hours he spent designing the theme, or giving out support. Keeping in mind that he does offer free themes at the same time which are still helping the community. I don’t see why he can’t charge for a higher quality of service. Just like charges for a better quality of service. Yes they give some of their service away for free. But for ha higher quality more functioning service it costs some money.

  • The problem does not reside in the GPL license, but rather in the fact that by using WordPress you have to also release your “products” under this license. In theory the GPL license is an amazing thing that allows people to improve and build upon other people’s work, and thus contributing to the development of a bigger, better product, free or paid.


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