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A House Divided: WordPress.org, Envato, and GPL Battle

There has been little secret about the issues between WordPress.org proper and Envato and the various and different interpretations to GPL, licensing, and distribution/ownership rights.

But the battle is beginning to get heated (and personal) as the WordPress Foundation is now requesting that anyone who sells their products on Envato properties (WordPress Themes and Plugins) not speak at, volunteer for, organize or sponsor WordCamps (Thanks Drew for the clarification!).

And when I say it’s getting heated – it’s really getting heated – there hasn’t been this type of online riot since, well, Chris Pearson (remember that big issue?).

It’s worth noting that it can be difficult, at times, to distinguish Automattic as the organization and WordPress.org and that’s because the two clearly have overlapping circles of staff, philosophy, protocol and such.

As Jake Caputo has experienced, it’s a confusing and disappointing issue:

Last year I attended three WordCamps and spoke at two of them. This year I was on the planning team for WordCamp Chicago and was asked to speak again. I am passionate about WordPress and want to give back to the community.

On Friday, January 18, I was told that I may no longer participate in WordCamps.

More specifically, I was contacted by Andrea Middleton (Dot Organizer for Automattic). She said according to the WordCamp guidelines, I may not speak or volunteer at WordCamps while I sell my themes on ThemeForest with their split license as is.

It’s deep and abiding issue because it impacts the very core of who we are as a community, how we leverage, interpret, and execute the GPL, and how some of us make a living, which is obviously a very highly sensitive and personal matter.

Jake apparently makes nearly all of his necessary income via ThemeForest which provides the mechanism, the market, and the profit that allows him to live the lifestyle that he desires. No one can necessarily fault him for that.

But the rub is that it is, from different perspectives, people see it as a contradiction to the letter and/or the spirit of the GPL law (despite the fact that the spirit is more the focus and under fire while Envato upholds the letter). Jake contacted Matt Mullenweg who did it right – they engaged in a conversation which allowed them to at least share their perspectives but nothing, according to Jake, came of it as he couldn’t find a “straight answer.”

Matt even adds a few thoughts via the comments:

Many things about this make me sad, including Envato forcing their authors to break WordPress.org guidelines and all that entails.

But the larger point is that part of why you’re willing to forgo the community you’ve been a part of for 5 years is because Envato writes you a big check every month, and there is no one else who can do the same for the same work (selling a premium theme on a marketplace with a built-in audience).

I’ve made the case to Envato before, and will continue to do so of they ask, but I’m more interested in promoting someone doing the right thing rather than focusing on what they’re doing wrong. (They’re smart and they know what they’re doing, it’s not an accident or the BS about themes being a small percentage of their “items,” they’re a huge percentage of their revenue. The fact they won’t even let authors choose to have OS is very aggressive.)

So what are the 100% GPL theme marketplaces out there we can promote? I’ll put them on the homepage of WordPress.org.

To quote Senator Lamar Alexander from the inauguration yesterday, “The late Alex Haley, the author of Roots, lived his life by these six words: find the good and praise it.”

But Jake isn’t confused by just Matt’s stance – he also has mentioned Envato’s stance too. Japh Thomson, a community member here and the WordPress Evangelist at Envato, has also presented their perspective on the split license as such:

So the idea behind the split license is to protect authors in terms of their designs and things like that. The parts that have to be GPL are GPL, the parts that don’t have to be, we’re happy to provide that license to help you protect them.

The other thing is that on the [Envato] marketplaces there are smaller component style items, so you could buy the extended license on the marketplace, and use that in your WordPress theme.

And if you then make your WordPress theme 100% GPL, you just disregarded the license of the item you put into the theme.

So where does that land us in the mix of muddy and very dirty water? Does one really have to care to proceed? Do we cry ‘foul’ and strike against WordCamps everywhere? Do we start our own WordPress-centric gathering, perhaps called ‘WorcDamp’ as one commenter suggested? Is this just the battle between two mega-titans while the rest of us line up as casualties?

It’s tough because there are great people on every side of every issue – and we’ve got community members here that are a part of both organizations, at the same time. There are enough justification from each side and certainly enough ammunition – where will you sit when the chips fall and you’re called to take a side?

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  • http://twitter.com/nathanielks Nathaniel (@nathanielks)

    That makes me really sad. It shouldn’t matter where you sell your product, you knowledge is knowledge. You’ve learned it and shouldn’t be penalized for wanting to share it. It’s like saying you attend School X, but because X doesn’t get along with School Y, you can’t be a professor. Kind of silly.

    • http://john.do/ John Saddington

      It’s tough – there’s a lot of value coming from the envato camp and the users/developers/designers there.

    • http://jonathanmh.com Jonathan

      Yeah, same here, but when you’re selling a theme you’re benefiting from the WP-functions and need to respect the rights of whatever license the parent product is under. That’s the crucial part here I guess, not where exactly you learn it, but under which license you make money off it.

  • http://upthemes.com Chris Wallace

    I posted my thoughts here.

    • http://john.do/ John Saddington

      Read. Commented. Well-said.

  • http://www.drewapicture.com DrewAPicture

    It’s semantics, I know, but you really should be distinguishing between Automattic and WordPress.org/WordPress Foundation. The foundation is staffed by Automatticians but Matt (as director) is setting the guidelines (CMIIW).

    But the battle is beginning to get heated (and personal) as WordPress.org is now requesting that anyone who sells their products on Envato properties (WordPress Themes and Plugins) not participate in WordPress.org and Automattic-organized initiatives, namely, WordCamps.

    Should probably be closer to this:

    But the battle is beginning to get heated (and personal) as the WordPress Foundation is now requesting that anyone who sells their products on Envato properties (WordPress Themes and Plugins) not speak at, volunteer for, organize or sponsor WordCamps.

    • http://john.do/ John Saddington

      You’re right. When I wrote wordpress.org i was referring directly to WordPress Foundation. I could be more exact there!

  • http://jonathanmh.com Jonathan

    I think the GPL should be respected and I bet that Envato could come up with a way to actually make it work, so you could drop in a marketplace item that works with that theme. The problem is probably, that they don’t want to. There are other theme market places out there and I wonder how they handle it actually.

    I think Envato adds great value to the web by educating people and also enabling independent authors to make a living, but I think they’re pushing it on this one.

    • http://stephenharris.info Stephen Harris

      The license offered by Envato is GPL compliant. So they are ‘respecting’ it. The issue here is nothing to do with the legality. Whether plug-ins and/or themes need to be GPL compliant hinges on a technical details regarding linking (This post is a great summary of that: http://www.tomjn.com/249/wordpress-foundation-the-gpl-issue/ ). But the case of Envato, that’s by the by since they are GPL compatible.

      • http://ma.tt/ Matt

        No it’s not. Some of the files are GPL-compatible, some of them are not, they’re under a proprietary and restrictive license that doesn’t provide you the same freedoms as the GPL. They *force* you to do this even if as an author you’d rather license the whole thing under the GPL.

        • http://pooriast.wordpress.com Pooria

          Hi Matt,

          I am a WordPress user and heavily depended on the platform. I bought items from different marketplaces including Evanto, and I use WordPress.org everyday. The major reason that I love WordPress is the moral spirit that you and other pioneers added to it from the 1st day. Now I’m worried these issues hurt the whole ecosystem. I have two suggestions ( if they haven’t been tried) they might be helpful: 1. creating an arbitration committee for the similar issues to serve the whole community. 2. Creating a forum dedicated to legal and licensing Q&A and discussions. In this way Any developer or start up can get the clear picture of the right path from day first and won’t grow big in a disputed atmosphere that any change or challenge hurts many people. I am sure everyone feels we are on a same boat.

  • http://gravatar.com/pphaf Peter P

    I find it sad that people get so enmeshed in one camp.

    I’m all for GPL, but if one organization or another chooses to charge for things and people actually pay for them, then that’s down to a contract between buyer and seller.

    If the open source/GPL system is really working and providing good quality products, then the paid products will get no business and will thus change to reflect the market.

    I actually think that companies like ThemeForest are healthy for the GPL movement because it gives them something to strive to compete with.

    … Unless GPL means competition is bad if they don’t play by quite the same rules as you…

    • http://stephenharris.info Stephen Harris

      “I’m all for GPL, but if one organization or another chooses to charge…” – (Maybe I’m interpreting what you’re saying incorrectly), but you can sell GPL products :)

    • http://jonathanmh.com Jonathan

      I think you’ve misunderstood the GPL at that point. This is not capitalists vs communists if you look at companies like Novell and Red Hat. They sell open sourced products. They don’t prevent other people from looking at their code too aggressively, which Envato is making their sellers do in Automattics/the foundations opinion.

      • http://gravatar.com/pphaf Peter P

        I may misunderstand GPL, but I don’t think so. It’s the same thing. If 100% open is the way to go because it’s better all round, then prove it by succeeding where those who want to do a mixed GPL fail.

        • jay

          I think CyberChimps has shown that you can release 100% GPL and still make a profit. They had a pretty impressive year last year and seem to be growing. There are a few others out there doing the same thing.

          • http://www.deluxive.se Christopher Anderton

            Or WooThemes. Or we could just look outside the WP world for lot’s of examples. Now TF of course have included the option of 100% GPL, but most of their authors doesn’t want that. The discussion goes like ”So you are saying if i release a 100% GPL theme, someone else could like uhm, take it and sell it elsewhere? Or give it away for free? No way!”.

            They obviously haven’t too much experience with the OpenSource world.

      • http://stephenharris.info Stephen Harris

        Regarding Envato, that’s simply not true. They have an open split license (http://support.envato.com/index.php?/Knowledgebase/Article/View/428/0/split-licensing-and-the-gpl—what-does-it-all-mean) which is compatible with WordPress’ GPL. You are free to redistribute the code (as with GPL) – but stuff like CSS, images, graphics, design, photos etc are covered by the market place license.

    • http://paulruescher.wordpress.com paulruescher

      The GPL means you have the freedom to do what you want with your code. To me, Matt/.org Foundation is limiting those freedoms.

  • http://themesforge.com edbloomtf

    Every so often one of these really tricky and polarising debates pops up within the WordPress ecosystem. I can see both points of view. But what I find quite concerning is the flat out rejection of Themeforest theme authors from participation in WordCamps et. al. The wrong entity is being punished here.

    • http://twitter.com/mtheoryx David R. Poindexter (@mtheoryx)

      Honestly, this is pretty much the exact same debate that’s been ebbing and flowing for at least half a decade now.

  • http://wpkrauts.com Kaiser

    Here’re the thoughts from part of the German speaking community on this topic.


    • http://john.do/ John Saddington

      Appreciate this addition to the convo!

  • http://joshuawagneronline.com/ Josh Wagner

    Exactly how are designers supposed to protect themselves if they cannot control their IP? Technically, if I somehow get a copy of something under the GPL, I can do whatever I want with it. Which, technically, means that I can turn around and sell other people’s stuff and pay them nothing.

    I understand and like GPL, or at least the idea. But when you start coming down on creatives like this and they feel like they cannot control their own creations, you’re setting a bad example. Automattic is overreaching, in my opinion.

    • http://wank.wordpress.com that girl again

      The WordPress GPL commercial themes model is not actually based on paying for the theme. It’s based on paying for support. This also, of course, encourages the production of insanely complex themes with myriad options, so that the non-tech user will be unable to make sense of a pirated copy by themselves and has to pay for the ‘legit’ version.

      As for ‘protecting yourself’: you can’t. There’s a fundamental disconnect between the way most creative artists think about their work and the way most WP coders do. You are never going to convince them that you deserve credit for a design, or for that design not to be ripped off, because these concepts are antithetical to open-source philosophy.

      • http://joshuawagneronline.com/ Josh Wagner

        ‘Open source’ is about protecting your creative stuff, it’s just forcing a different way. Most people think of protection in the sense of “It’s mine, don’t touch unless I say.” GPL is “Take it, you just can’t appropriate to rip owners off.” I just think there’s got to be some way that the IP can be protected and GPL honored. Call me an idealist.

        • http://wp.tutsplus.com Japh Thomson

          There is a way, Josh: split / dual licensing. Obviously that has it’s problems too though.

    • http://hakre.wordpress.com hakre

      Please don’t make designers the better creatives here. Copyright clearly puts the developer in the same camp. So I think it’s only fair if the developers were so generous to release under a Free Software license, that their will is respected by those who create derivative works based on these terms.

      And what “your IP” is, ask your lawyer first.

      • http://joshuawagneronline.com/ Josh Wagner

        Was not my intention to put designers or developers above the other, I apologize!

  • http://ednailor.com Ed NailorEd Nailor

    I am very confused and very disappointed to read this. I understand the whole GPL debate, but how does that prevent someone from being involved in a WordCamp? This makes NO sense to me.

    The whole GPL debate is a bit rife with hypocracy though. If one sells an item on ThemeForest.com they can not sponsor or even speak and volunteer a WordCamp… yet, there is a free, GPL compliant plugin currently hosted with WordPress.org. This is the OptionTree plugin (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/option-tree/). Its a great plugin, but is written by someone heavily involved with Envato and the plugin description even claims it is sponsored by ThemeForest. There are a number of Envato plugins on WordPress.org.

    So why is it that these plugins can co-exist with WordPress.org, but experts within the community that work with Envato in some capacity are not permitted to give back in one of the best ways possible by being part of WordCamp?

    As someone that loves WordPress but does not want to get caught up in the politics, I am having a hard time understanding this.

  • http://ednailor.com Ed Nailor

    And what if I purchase an Envato product? Does that somehow disqualify me from participating in WordCamp? My money helps to keep Envato going, so that would make me just as complicit, correct?

    Where is the line drawn, and who the hell draws that line?

  • http://www.ait-themes.com AitThemes.com

    Funny story. We wanted to release a theme on wordpress.org but it was immediately rejected because it’s from an author that supports non-gpl themes even though we wanted to release that theme under GPL and give it for free to the community. Yes we sell our themes on themeforest, that’s how we make living. I don’t think that approach helps any party.

  • http://www.andmarios.com Marios

    Maybe the problem isn’t the GPL compliance but that Envato doesn’t allow non-dual, GPL only licensing?

    Do designers using Envato’s distribution channel have the option to fully GPL their themes?

    If not, there is the problem. Due to Envato’s popularity, a designer has to use them to get a decent return from his work but on the same time, he loses the ability to publish under GPL.

  • http://asif.im M Asif Rahman

    Envato’s non-exclusive agreement and exclusive agreement thing is wrong. Even if they are 10% right, still I know how they are very ignorant about insuring theme or plugin update or control how their seller provide support.

  • http://ekendraonline.com/ Ekendra

    Let’s wait while there is more clarification from both the parties, however, the matter of “already built audience” and “living made by the authors of those themes” should be addressed sensibly by both the parties.

  • http://newlocalmedia.com Dan

    What are the implications for other open source ecosystems beyond WP’s if, say, Envato were to back down and comply with WP’s stricter interpretation of the “spirit” of the GPL on CSS, media, and JS assets? As long as it stays out of the courts, could you have WP existing with the strict interpretation and others, like Joomla, continuing with the less strict, split-license tolerant interpretation of the same GPL?

  • http://wpthemesdaily.com Robert

    It’s sad that two big WordPress organizations are fighting together and the only one that hurt is theme developer. They have no wrong in developing theme, and the different between GPL and non-GPL is that you can use one on several sites (or sell them) while you can’t do anything with non-GPL (for themes on ThemeForest).

    I must say, how can people behind ThemeForest can control these things. If you buy a theme and use it on several sites without asking them for permission, how can they discover?

  • http://www.ibd.us.com Dani

    I happen to be working on my site using a WP theme from Envato. Funny thing is, when I paid for the theme, I knew what I was paying for. I was paying for the extras, the overlay on top of the WP base.

    I liked what that author did with the base, and was willing to pay what I felt was a reasonable price. Now I (as a relative newb to the WP world, but not a tech newb by any means) am making a bunch of customizations which are infinitely easier to make on top of this theme because it a big part of its design is just that – customizability.

    I saw nothing like it in the WP paid themes. Not even close. So why wouldn’t I be able to reward the author – and why wouldn’t the author be able to have her or his part of the theme protected by some kind of license or copyright? There’s a lot of work in that theme, and it should be fair for the person who produced it to have some control over the work that they produced and be compensated fairly for it.

    I must be missing something in this whole debate. It seems like a bit of a storm in a teapot. There was never any claim made to me, nor did I ever not understand, that the base of the theme was WP and its license, and the icing on the cake, so to speak, was what I was paying for.

    At least on the surface, some of these arguments sound ridiculous and made by people who don’t have to pay rent or buy food or put shoes on their children’s feet. Are the authors of these supercharged themes supposed to live on thin air and the love and goodwill of “the community”? Will “the community” put money in a retirement account for them, pay for their auto insurance, or send their teenagers to robotics summer camp? I think not.

    This idea that the community will suffer if someone gets paid for their work is just plain silly. And while I know there are other legal issues going on, the nature of the arguments/discussions seems to come back to how the community must come first, and things should be open source and free and no one should make money off of anything.

    If that were true, who would pay the rent? It’s pretty cold where I live in winter.

    • http://newlocalmedia.com Dan

      You’ve misunderstood. Nobody has a problem with commercial themes that make money for the author. The dispute is over licensing. A GPL or similar license does not stop anyone from making money. Some feel it exposes them to others reselling their work, which could be done legally, but in fact there is no value in doing this in a sustained, large scale fashion.

  • http://neversettle.it Kenn

    As mentioned this debate has been going on for quite some time, but I do think its critical that as a development and open source community we look at establishing new standards and testing our previous assumptions and make changes where necessary to adapt to the current market we are in. Regardless of how you feel about our current opens source standards are incentivizing the wrong people, internet marketers and others looking to drive traffic leverage this open source content for their own benefit. If the market would consider making a shift and incentivize developers to spend more time creating better things we could truly see WP solutions that would blow our minds, but the core is the people creating the IP need more than a pat on the back. Pat’s on the back are great but they don’t keep the power on for your machine. There are absolutely some things that Envato could do to improve in their licensing standards but thats their choice, the best way to disagree is to not purchase, but it doesn’t make what they are doing ‘wrong’. I think the WP community should encourage more companies like this to come forth creating demand and incentive for the IP creators. A bit late to the conversation but wanted to add my 2 cents. Great write up John.