If you drive down the street I grew up on too fast, my dad will yell at you. You will not hear him because you’re inside a car, and you’re already half way down the street, but my dad will still have yelled at you to slow down because he’s worried about the kids in the neighborhood. I grew up in a pretty tight-knit community that’s focused on its children. Unsafe drivers are a risk to one of the things the community of the neighborhood is built-on: children.
Recently, in the WordPress community we had another site pop up re-selling commercial, GPL-licensed software and many people were pretty upset about it. It’s easy for me to understand why people got angry with the proprietor of wpshare.net—they see it as an attack on the companies whose profits help fund our community.
In an attempt to better understand why someone would choose to run a site with this sort of business model—a choice that the GPL grants them—but that, I like so many people, consider wrong, I had a discussion in the WordPress subreddit with a user who identified himself as the proprietor of wpshare.net.
I wanted to know if they felt they were adding value to the community. They told me this:
I think that offering the plugins without support at a lower price is an honest and real value proposition. It’s a positive pressure in the right direction.
The Cost of Free Software
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the effects of re-distributing commercial WordPress themes and plugins on their creators with Matt Cohen of WooThemes, developers of the GPL-license WooCommerce plugin, and Muhammed Haris of ThemeFusion, whose theme Aveda is a top seller on ThemeForest and is licensed under the restrictive Envato Regular License. They both pointed to concerns about trademark and user confusion that can stem from other sites redistributing their products under the same name as being bigger concern than the actual redistribution.
The creator of wpshare.net told me that only recently have they been made aware of trademark issues, and that they “agree that developers have a right to control their marketing.” As a result, they took the site down temporarily to ensure they were not infringing any trademarks.
Haris of ThemeFusion told me that it isn’t worth investing time in trying to prevent piracy of his products. For ThemeFusion, much like WooThemes, they believe that offering support for their products is the key to retaining paying customers who could easily get their products for less. Haris said that ThemeFusion’s support is “the reason for why we keep selling.”
While Haris and Cohen think that the WordPress commercial plugin and theme market are doing a good job of communicating the value of purchasing support as part of a plugin or theme license, wpshare.net’s creator feels this way:
$200 for a plugin that’s sold under a free software license is such a glaring weak spot that people are bound to take advantage of it.
When premium products can be bought elsewhere cheaper, the developers of the plugin lose a lot of money. In the short term, this rise in websites such as GPL Club is going to benefit all of us as we can get high quality premium plugins at a reduced rate. In the long term, this is going to push lots of great developers and entrepreneurs away from WordPress.
This is a common perspective that I only partially agree with. Redistribution of commercial WordPress products may be taking money from a developer, though the argument that those people wouldn’t have paid for it anyway is probably true in most, but not all of the time.
In this sense, the only potential harm being done for the user who is downloading the software from a third-party is to themselves. They are the ones who are not getting the support that comes with paying for software and keeping themselves out of the community.
That’s probably what a lot of people miss when they multiply the cost of a theme like Aveda by its number of sales and think, “I can get rich doing this.” According to Harris, ThemeFusion puts “around 70% of [their] resources towards supporting [their] paid users.”
Should All WordPress Software Be Free?
Keep in mind that this question has nothing to do with whether or not anyone should be selling WordPress plugins or themes. The idea that free software can be sold has always been a part of the GNU ideology behind the GPL.
It seems to me that many people are still holding on to those ideals of proprietary software in an open source system. While I have nothing against closed-source software, it’s not what WordPress is about. We must adjust our thinking. We need to think about how we can build products that fit in line with open source and learn to live with that.
I asked Justin if he meant that all WordPress software should be free—i.e. licensed under the GPL or a GPL-compatible license. He told me this:
for the majority of WordPress code, I don’t think it should be released under a non-open source license. Mostly, this is because we are part of an open source community.” He also told me that while he doesn’t believe all software should be free, free software is the basis of the WordPress philosophy and that “If you choose to program in this community, you should embrace all aspects of it, including its open source roots.
The WordPress philosophy is explained in a page on WordPress.org that says that WordPress’s GPL license, which it inherited from b2, includes “licensing derivative works or things that link core WordPress functions (like themes, plugins, etc.) under the GPL as well, thereby passing on the freedom of use for these works as well.”
I asked Samuel “Otto” Wood—whose job with Audrey Capital is focused largely on WordPress.org—-if this meant that a WordPress theme or plugin should not be able to carry a restrictive license, for example the Envato Regular License. Otto told me that if I wanted to know the answer for sure I’d have to ask Matt Mullenweg. I didn’t because I’m more interested in how the effects of these decisions then the idealism behind making these decisions.
Otto made it clear that he can’t speak for Matt Mullenweg or the WordPress Foundation, but that in his personal opinion, while there may be some exceptions, it’s hard to imagine a theme that isn’t a derivative work of WordPress, but it is “certainly possible for a plugin to not necessarily be a derivative work, and thus not inherit the GPL.” He also stressed that the GPL does not invalidate the restrictions placed on a non-free theme.
I asked Justin Tadlock the same question, and while he agrees with Otto about restrictive licenses being valid, he made the much more relevant point that restrictive licenses don’t actually prevent redistribution. What they do is make those who use them outsiders to the community. Otto pointed to the fact that WordPress.org, one of the centers of the WordPress community, and distributor of a huge quantity of plugins and themes, does not host non-free software.
The Reddit user claiming to be running wpshare.net told me that “this is a good way to promote myself and (maybe) make some money, so I’m going to do it.” For me, the reason why I would never make this choice— even if it is a potentially good way to make money—is because I want to be seen as a member of the community, and respected by this community that has given me so much.
The Value of The Second Freedom
I can’t begin to add up what being a part of this community has given me, as it doesn’t stop at just a marketable skill, gainful employment, and tools to achieve my life-goals. Paying for software, open source or not, is a choice. When we choose to pay for free software we are sending a message that we are part of this community.
The “Second Freedom” of the GPL— “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor” was designed to strengthen open source communities in ways that are only made possible when we give up restrictive licensing. But that is only obvious to engaged community members.
The more that we continue to show that WordPress isn’t just something that you get for nothing, but a community that someone can benefit enormously from being a part of, the less customers there will be for sites that take advantage of that freedom.