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Envato Licensing, the Community and the Foundation

On the weekend I got some time to tune into the WPCandy podcast with host Ryan Imel and guest Jake Caputo. They discussed the recent blackball post and jokingly refer to Jake, who is an Envato Elite author, as surely having access to a magic red button that he can press to “make things happen”. I wish we did have this feature! Elite authors like Jake, after all, are the lifeblood of ThemeForest.

It’s been an interesting week with those posts, all the many comments, as well as lively discussion threads on ThemeForest itself. And it’s been a timely one too. As you may know, we rolled out the second phase of our Envato Marketplace licensing overhaul in the same week.

WP Daily kindly gave me some space to discuss the situation, and to explain where our licenses are coming from. As I stated in that post, they are 100% GPL Compliant, and I’ve always felt were respectful of the GPL while also protecting our authors’ rights. I’d like to ensure its clear that this license structure is based on advice published on WordPress.org from the Software Freedom Law Centre.

Today I wanted to post again, and this time talk more about our next steps in licensing around WordPress.

Community Meeting

Three months ago, in October 2012, our WP Evangelist Japh and I were invited to the first ever WordPress Community Summit. It’s pretty far for us here in Australia, and I had already committed to PressNomics, so Japh packed his suitcases and travelled to Tybee Island, Georgia. We were excited to be included and as Envato representative, Japh went with the intention to raise the issue of GPL licensing around themes and plugins.

With Japh’s involvement, there was an extensive discussion on the subject, and I was pleased to hear that as an outcome Matt agreed to come and meet with me at PressNomics to discuss things further. Though a few emails have been exchanged over the years (one of which taught me the proper capitalisation of WordPress!), we’ve never actually met before.

That discussion was interesting and went way over the allotted time. Cyan and I explained much of the reasoning that I posted to WP Daily last week, particularly from the designer’s point of view. Matt asked about why we didn’t give authors a license choice, and talked to the benefits of GPL. At the end of the discussion we all agreed that both groups had much to think on, and that we’d come back with the results of that thinking.

Authors and Choice

One of my big fears around giving license options is that our authors will feel pressure to make a switch. I’ve met with many of the independent theme shops who have switched their licensing, and not all of them were happy about the decision. Some of our authors have reported being asked to push for completely GPL licensing on ThemeForest. And the recent exclusion from WordCamps feels like it would add further pressure.

In the past our position has always been that ThemeForest is just one option for distribution of themes. Since our earliest days I have said to our authors across all the Envato Marketplaces, that they should sell their work on a site that benefits them the best. We work hard to try to make that choice selling with Envato, but ultimately we are just one way to sell your creative work.

However I’ve been thinking about our position since last week. In particular Jake made some comments in his post and podcast that struck me. Essentially he doesn’t feel he has a choice in where to sell because ThemeForest is such a key part of his income. As Jake has put it, he’s caught in the middle. And that’s not fair.

Fairness is a key part of our culture, not just at Envato, but generally here in Australia.

With this in mind, I’ve reflected a lot these last few days – and I think I’ve been wrong in my stance. I would like to change that stance, and feel that ThemeForest should offer an option for authors, if they choose, to sell their themes with a GPL license covering the entirety of the theme. I am going to take this option to our community.

A Community Survey of Authors

Last week we rolled out the second phase of our ongoing license improvements. The next phase of the project is to work on more industry specific licensing. This is a huge project – if you think WordPress licensing is complicated, you should see what audio licensing is like! It is however a very important project.

I’ve asked the licensing team to move up the timing on industry specific licensing around ThemeForest and CodeCanyon. Part of that is a survey of authors and buyers on both those sites. We will be including questions about licensing completely through the GPL.

I’ve let the team know that I’d like to make the results of the GPL portion of that survey public (with respondents details completely anonymised). The survey will begin next week and while it’s a lot of work, we are going to push to try to have the results available by the end of the month.

The GPL licensing questions and results will relate not just to WordPress themes, but also to the multiple other GPL-based CMSes we support. If WordPress authors should be given this option, so should theme authors in other open source spaces. I feel confident that with the involvement and feedback of our author community, we can move forward on this important issue and offer the choice.

A Call for Clarity

One of the biggest challenges I have had in the WordPress community, is understanding where the lines are between Automattic and the WordPress Foundation. It’s extremely difficult to see from the outside.

I have a huge amount of respect for the people at Automattic. Along with Matt, I’ve spoken with their CEO, CFO and many other staff. But I do also recognise that they are a commercial entity, with commercial interests. They have had significant investment, of some $30M, and that creates pressure inside the organisation to deliver growth and revenue. That is a normal part of a venture backed company.

It’s great that the company is doing well, and fantastic that it’s doing so in the open source space. However the large overlap with the WordPress Foundation makes its very difficult to see where Automattic ends and the Foundation begins. In particular, it’s very hard when receiving guidance relating to how we conduct business at ThemeForest, to have any clarity on who is giving that guidance.

I would respectfully like to make a call for clarity in the community around this distinction.

I believe clarity would give more weight to the WordPress Foundation to achieve the objective Matt set out, to further the mission of the WordPress open source project: To democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software.

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