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Plugin and Theme Licensing Wars

Since the inception of WordPress there have been fights over licensing plugins and themes. Some people believe that WordPress themes and plugins automatically inherit the GPL license, and others contest this, but does the licensing really matter?

I believe two things matter: what is in it for the developer, and is the community served?

I don’t believe that the GPL is providing for the developers nor truly living up to what the community needs.

Consider this:

You’ve just created an amazing plugin, it took you over a dozen hours, and you’ve given it out to the community for free.

Now they come to you for support, and you try your best to provide them with the answers they need, adding another two hours per week to your “work”. WordPress then changes in some major way, and you have to recode your plugin to work under the new “rules” of WordPress, adding another two hours of development time to your plugin.

All of this time spent is from the goodness of your heart, but it becomes tiring. One day, you decide to start charging for support. Each request is only two dollars, and you go from needing to spend two hours a week to only spending two hours a month on support related inquiries.

The problems didn’t disappear though, instead the WordPress community forums are littered with people asking for help with your plugin, and they are getting answers, thus bypassing your new business enterprise completely.

You feel frustrated that the hours you originally and continue to put have been rewarded in such a way, and in the end you never make back in community currency, links or actual money the investment that you had put into the project.

Where is the benefit to continue? You either end up discontinuing your work or finding ways to try to drive business to yourself, only to have your plugin removed from the WordPress Plugins repository for not being “GPL enough”. Someone else forks your work and continues on, paying no homage to the original idea creator, you.

Sound like fiction? I have no doubt that this has been the case for at least a few WordPress theme and plugin developers as the GPL creates a number of limitations with no business model set up to reward those that spend the time adding to the community.

Flip that around and remove the GPL, and the plugin author could have built a business around the plugin, while still remaining in the forefront of the community. The monetary benefit would have hopefully changed the market in two ways.

The first way would be that the plugin developer would have been more likely to spend time developing their plugin continually. The second change would be that popular plugins would have to compete in the market in both price and features.

I don’t believe that GPL is the great equalizer and protector, and I also believe that within five years, WordPress will see much of their current plugin and theme development rock stars move onto other platforms that don’t have such restrictive licensing.

iThemes now has a Movable Type store. How long will it be until more theme developers follow suit? Habari’s license allows the creators to manage and sell their work under any license they like, allowing for true business to be built around their platform.

Categories: Opinion, WordPress Plugins, WordPress Themes

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  1. Cory Miller says: 1/26/2009

    David, this issue is one I’ve dealt with for the past year (or more) …. it’s an ongoing saga and conversation that will no doubt continue on. And personally, I hate controversy. I don’t like to stir up things, which is why until recently, I’ve kept my comments private.

    We decided to pursue Movable Type themes because of the overwhelming support we got from Six Apart and the opportunity to diversify our business.

    But … we still love WordPress.

    We feel we’re providing a valuable and ethical service. And as long as our customers continue to love what we’re doing, we’re committed to providing some of the best WP themes on the planet.

    After a year in business (this month in fact), here’s what we’ve found … people will indeed happily pay to get the piece of mind and confidence of knowing someone is there to help them get their site running. They don’t want to wade through junk. They want quality work and responsive support — the bulk of our support time is spent just helping people on basic WP issues like installation, setup, simple tweaking.

    (All made possible through our business model.)

    I’m EXTREMELY thankful to people like Mark Jaquith and Jacob Santos and countless others who volunteer their time to make WP even better as well as Automattic, Matt, etc.

    We do want to continue to contribute and fund GPL code back to the community (our team has contributed dozens of GPL themes and several plugins) … but we’re the black sheep of the community, and being increasingly shunned by certain parts of it.

    All this to say … I don’t think WP will go anywhere anytime soon, and I’m thankful to be a part (black sheep or not) of helping make an awesome piece of software even better!


  2. David ) says: 1/26/2009

    Don’t get me wrong Cory, I just worry that as a black sheep, you’ll give up and head to greener pastures. I’ve released many themes before, and I am just about to release my first paid WordPress theme.

    I think WordPress is great, I just hope that people can see that having sustainable business models in place helps the now mature WordPress community, more than it hurts or hinders it.

    I’ve always thought highly of your work, and kudos to you for continuing to do so. :)


  3. Not A Niche says: 1/26/2009

    Very good post David and good comment Cory, we also know it’s not a fiction story.

    We had the same with our wpSEO Plugin, it didn’t take long before it got kicked out of, without any notification (communication in the key!). That’s fine and we have to respect that, since it’s not GPL conform. But as you already said, it doesn’t matter if it’s under GPL or not, it matters what is good for the whole WordPress community, that’s important.

    Right now, all the things, which are going on, aren’t good for anybody. Not for the developers, because they don’t get any reward for their hard work, neither for the users, because great themes and plugins, like cforms, just vanish, because they don’t want to be the black sheep just because they purpose of their work were to provide something positive for the WordPress community and at least get a link to their website as a thank you.

    We offer wpSEO for free for private users, but it cost a small license for business user or blogs with ads. I think it is legitimate if we ask for a small fee, if they want to make big money with a WordPress blog.

    Where is this thing going? First the Developer and next the users, who are making money with their blogs through ads or a business?

    We also love WordPress and love to support the community, like with publishing our new free antispam bee plugin. But there are also other systems like Habari, which doesn’t have any problem to share a big cake with everybody who makes their system stronger.

    I really hope Matt and Co. will rethink their politics.


  4. franky ) says: 1/27/2009

    I remember the whole license issue from Joomla. There have been wars around Joomla hosting commercial extensions and if this were compatible with the GPL.

    In the end the decision was rather simple: continue to provide the best for the community and if this means to allow (and support/host) commercial add-ons, themes, so be it.

    It would be interesting to see WP use their new poll feature for topics, discussions like these and not just for features.


  5. that girl again says: 1/27/2009

    We offer wpSEO for free for private users, but it cost a small license for business user or blogs with ads. I think it is legitimate if we ask for a small fee, if they want to make big money with a WordPress blog.

    Isn’t that pretty much what Automattic is doing with Akismet? I know that technically they’re charging pro users for the use of their servers rather than the plugin itself, but the end result is the same. So, it’s OK for Automattic to charge for commercial use, but other theme and plugin developers will get kicked off if they pursue the same policy.

    There is definitely a gap in the market for a blogging/CMS solution that is genuinely open-source and community-led, rather than controlled by a single businessman using open-source rhetoric as an anti-competitive tool. Too early to say whether it will be Habari, but they have as good a chance as anyone.


  6. Not A Niche says: 1/29/2009

    @that girl again, yep, the model is quite the same, but it’s their own plugin so they can make the rule.

    BTW, did you know, if you don’t use Akismet in a WordPress Version smaller than 2.7, you were able to mark comments as Spam, but you were not able to see them or unspam them again. So you had to use Akismet to manage your spam comments. Doesn’t sound GPL conform.

    @sohbet, yes, we still love WordPress like a son, but this son reaches his puberty and being difficult ;)


  7. Rick Imby says: 2/15/2009

    As a total WordPress newbie I find this really interesting. Without the ability to make money in building plugins and competing on price and function I do not get why many people would continue to spend a lot of time building and improving the whole.



  8. Nori Silverrage says: 4/22/2009

    Makes me wonder why someone hasn’t forked WordPress and released it under a different license. I am a bit of a web developer but I don’t think I would ever release a plugin to because its not worth it. Why should I work hard for everyone elses gain when I get nothing but a headache back. And then there is always the possibility that WP will kick your plugin out. It is so dumb.


  9. Kevin Eklund says: 6/19/2009

    I would like to see Matt Mullenweg to create a drop dead list of business models plugin and theme developers can use and still get their work into the theme/plugin repository at There seems to be a double standard when Automattic’s Akismet and Poll Daddy plugins are allowed to remain in the repository even though they sell upgrades to them. Whether those are legit models that fit with the GPL or not, it’s still unclear to most people. It would be great to hear your perspectives on this and the potential to create a separate repository to help developers maintain and support their plugins/themes.


  10. Andy Bailey ) says: 3/31/2011

    David, I am with you all the way! I just read the longassed thread at wptavern about cforms II and really resonated with you on your replies there. I agree it is a shame that wordpress has gone this way. I am one of those who write plugins and am fortunate enough to have some of them used by literally hundreds of thousands of people (and hey! you’re using one of mine right here) ;) that has got to the point of having to decide on either charging for a premium version where users get premium support and other fancy things like my obligation to update it to work with every updated wordpress version or giving it up entirely.

    I’m really going to try to freemiumize it, my family has seen me glued to the pc for years on this and it’s about time I pay them back and one way to do that is by turning my plugin in to money and I’m scared as hell that someone might take it all way from me because my version wasn’t GPL enough and there’ll be nothing legal I can do about it.

    I wrote about it on my blog.