In late 2009, Mike Alex Wasylik wrote two excellent and thought provoking blog posts about whether or not the GPL license is applicable to premium wordpress themes. Mike was quite clear and very articulate in his views in favour of the right of premium wordpress theme developers to reserve the right to charge for their works and copyright same.
If you’ve not read the posts and have any remote interest in premium wordpress themes and the future of this fledgling industry I suggest you go read them immediately.
The first post from November 2009 is still generating debate in the comments to this day and has drawn comments from heavy hitters in the WordPress ecosystem including Matt Mullenweg, leading Internet Marketer/Copywriter (and ex-attorney) Brian Clark, and leading blogger Leo Babauta
The second post gives Mike’s definitive legal view of the situation.
It’s clear that the debate about whether premium wordpress themes and plugins should be released under the GPL or not has been raging for quite some time now. In fact, it was back in 2008 that Alister Cameron wrote his very detailed post on this very subject. In fact, since then, the majority of leading premium wordpress theme shops have switched to releasing their themes under the GPL. So why should we even be discussing this?
Well in my view the debate still rages. Should theme developers in fact release all their themes for free and rely solely on post sales support services and other add ons like installation and customisation services? Or should theme developers be allowed to earn a fair price for a fair job for fair use?
From reading into this a lot, I think one of the main problems here is the lack of a clear message from Automattic.
Premium theme developers bring another level of creativity and professionalism to the thriving wordpress community. Don’t get me wrong. I love open source software. I love open source projects and open source movement in general. But I don’t think that GPL, Open Source and Premium has to be an either/or situation. I fully believe that the two can go hand in hand and in fact I believe that the two operating in harmony is essential for the long term success of WordPress as the leading publishing platform. Let’s not forget that Commerical/Premium theme developers and theme shops are satisfying demand from the market. If there was no demand for their services they would simply move on to something else. Therefote, it’s clear that wordpress users actually want the products that premium theme shops provide and are willing to pay. What we need now is a clear direction from Automattic as to how they see the wordpress community actively engage in providing themes and plugins in such a manner that allows customers to pay for same without conflicting with the GPL and the spirit of the wordpress community.
Failure to do so will only lead to more confusion for both users and developers which will ultimately have a negative impact on everyone within the wordpress community.
C’mon guys, show us some leadership and lead the way here.
Ok, about 10 minutes after posting this I stumbled upon a video on WordPress.tv which deals with this very subject with Matt and goes into a good bit of detail about the issues I outlined in this post. (Why it is always AFTER you finish writing a post that you find these things! Anyway, Matt does a good job answering the sticky questions surrounding GPL vs. Premium themes and goes some way to addressing the core issues. The message seems to be that it’s ok to sell premium themes, just as long as they fall under GPL and then it’s up to the theme developer to ensure their business model is focused on providing the innovative, value added services on top of this. While I agree with this philosophy and would like to think that this open distribution model can work, I’ll hold off on making final judgement just yet. But nice to get some clarity from the horses mouth!