The Ethics of WordPress Themes at a Premium

Are WordPress Themes open source? Is it right to release them on a pay-to-download basis?

… what these premium theme providers are doing … we would call that “Evil”Chase Sagum

… themes link and use lots of internal WordPress functions, which make them linked under the GPL and subject to being a GPL-compatible license. If a theme (or a plugin) used no internal WP functions or APIs, then it could probably be considered independent, but that would be really really hard for a theme. Matt Mullenweg

I haven’t really talked about it a lot but I’ve been trying to do pay-for-use themes differently. Namely, giving away what might normally be considered a “Premium” theme—my WordPress theme framework Thematic—and charging for upgrades in the form of Child Themes and custom design. I think it’s a little more fair to the WordPress community and the debatable concerns around the ethics of paid WordPress themes.

But there’s still more questions. There’s always questions, isn’t there?

Is there a principled difference between on the one hand, Jon hiring Ian to build a blog – Ian using his own Thematic theme as a base, and makes a custom blog a “child theme” with a distribution of 1; on the other hand, Ian makes 10 types of “child themes” – puts them on ThemeShaper – for a small price.Jon Soroko

Good question, I don’t really know. As far as I understand the GPL license, any GPL work can be redistributed. So, um, maybe? Does that make me “evil”?

More important, I think, is what Jon is trying to get at in his question. “The general, overarching concerns,” as he says in his original comment, around open source, the GPL and pay-for-use WordPress themes. So far, there’s been no definitive answer that I know of. Excepting the oft-linked comment above from the WordPress support forums.

What do I think? I can’t answer that question either. ThemeShaper is supported by advertising from premium theme designers and, of course, I release commercial Child Themes (I call them Themelets) for my GPL WordPress Theme Framework, Thematic, at a premium. I even predicted the end of “Premium” WordPress themes. My opinion, as they say, is biased.

But! I can start a discussion. :)

So what do you think? Are WordPress themes open source? Do they inherit the GPL? Does the WordPress community want “premium” themes to exist? Should they?

Update: You must read the comments on this post. There is some really interesting discussion happening. Notable commentators include WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and several designers involved in releasing commercial WordPress themes.

The Discussion Elsewhere

155 thoughts on “The Ethics of WordPress Themes at a Premium

  1. The bottom line is it is someone’s choice to pay for a theme or not

    that is the bottom line

    if something is for free it is often to achieve a business bottom end despite it being free

    Open Source leads many developers to earn long-term and when it comes to themes and the add-ons this is (imo) what makes WordPress stand above the rest.

    do note the IMO

  2. Under a GPL licence, you can sell any code but you have to provide the source code to it so others may use that code and advance it, if necessary. Your design, which is primarily images, CSS and XHTML, doesn’t fall under GPL and that’s why this is such a grey area.

    Given what I’ve just said, if you took the images, css and xhtml out of your theme, you’re left with some pretty boring code that doesn’t do much.

    So, with that in mind, licence your CSS, XHTML and images however you want and you end up with something sellable.

    Ethics doesn’t come into play here. As All4Data pointed out above, we all have a choice to pay for something or not, to give something away for free or not. You can discuss ethics till you’re blue in the face but that’s never going to change each person’s own right to choose whatever they want to do with their time and money.

    If this ever becomes a problem and people start trying to sue other people for selling themes, you’ll find that the opensource community will quickly react by releasing a GPL library of hooks that can be abstracted from the theme itself, enabling selling of your code totally doable. Heck, if you wanted to, you could do this right now.

  3. Argh man, all this GPL talk makes me feel like I’m in church. Fundamentalists and religious people also always talk about what is right, according to their holy scriptures. In this case, the holy scripture is the GPL! But why be so religious about it? Rules are not meant to be hard and never flexible.

    It also kills me to constantly see businesses being threatened because in this wonderful new web 2.0 world, everything has to be free. Free as in beer.

    Nobody wants to pay for anything that is intangible.

    Does premium themes hurt the WordPress community? No. They can download free themes. It’s a free choice. Does premium themes hurt the platform? No! I think it is part of an ecosystem.

    Stop all this open source hippie crap. Open source works, but there also has to be some energy and commerce in it. As long as choice is free.

    Should great designers and coders earn money from their efforts, and be able to make a decent living? YES!

  4. Nick obviously has more time to comment than I do, but this one thing stood out:

    “From my experience so far, I feel that 1) and 2) are probably not viable business models (can you name 5 people making a living this way?). ”

    I have personally met, without exaggeration, thousands of people that make their living from services and advertising around WP.

    Also whenever That Girl Again says something about the thinking or intentions about myself or Automattic you can safely assume it’s usually the exact opposite. Her suggestion that we don’t care about anything outside of .com is wrong, for example Joseph is basically dedicating 100% of his time right now to the .org theme directory. (Which is getting over 10,000 downloads a day now.)

  5. @Matt Somehow this is not the answer I was looking for… You’ve responded to those accusation (if I can call them that) but made no effort toward solving this mess. I’m sure you are right regarding what Nick and That Girl Again said but that’s not why there are so many comments. Somehow I believe that it’s going to remain like this(meaning there won’t be any repercussions on “premium” theme designers) no mater what’s the outcome of this!

    The funny thing is that the most interesting thing I found out from all these comments was habari.

  6. Thanks for the reply, Matt. I’m interested in learning more.

    “I have personally met, without exaggeration, thousands of people that make their living from services and advertising around WP.”

    I’d love to meet some. It would be great to learn which of the WP developers giving away free themes are still making a living off WP-related services full-time. If somebody can link to some who have moved out of their parents’ houses, that would be even better. I’m not being facetious for the sake of it — I’m just genuinely interested in meeting up with people who can prove that such a business model is viable.

    I know that there are several professional bloggers earning a decent full-time living on the WordPress platform, but I’ve yet to talk to any bloggers or developers who are making a living directly from WP who aren’t also offering paid themes or plugins.

  7. Nick,
    You raise a good point. I know many many WordPress theme developers in the community, and every one that is making enough money to do it full time are selling themes. It seems that, at the moment, the only way to release high-quality themes and make a living is to sell those themes.

    Here’s the current problem with the “free themes” market right now. There are the occasional renegade developers who released a high quality free theme. But take a look at their sites. How often do these guys release new themes? How often do they innovate with new features? Very rarely.

    Why? Because they can’t. They’re too busy providing free support to the users of their themes, and working a full-time job, and doing “side work” to make some extra income. They simply don’t have the time to keep pushing forward at the same pace as the premium designers.

    So, unless someone comes up with a way to eliminate the need for free theme developers to work that full-time job, there’s just no way they can compete (in terms of features, design, and pace) with the premium designers. Period.

  8. Oh, and by the way, releasing free themes in order to attract “custom requests” is not a viable business model. It just isn’t. It’s very hard work. I did it for about 10 months, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The turnaround time people demand, and the volume you have to do in a month’s time is just too much for most people to handle.

    Custom work means custom (and strange) requests. It gives me a headache just thinking about the kind of stuff I was asked to “figure out”.

  9. @nick: I don’t know if what I earn every month for WP is what you would call “a living” but I make good money with WP without having yet released a public theme, free or paid. And I know several people around me that do the same. You can make business around WP without having to sell themes…
    …don’t know if it does answer your question ! ;-)
    … and sorry for my bad english… that is not my native language !

  10. Jesus, that’s a narrow way to define it. Making a living from wordpress does not mean making themes 24/7. Nor does making free themes 24/7 confer quality.

    As a design firm, we do about 90% of our web-based work in and around wordpress. Yes, it’s been a while since I released a theme. That has nothing to do with where I’m working, more with my personal life, where I do not, in fact, live in my parents basement.

    Someone in one of the other wanky posts about all this said that Red Hat sells Linux. That’s incorrect. Novell and Red Hat sell service contracts around Linux. There are plenty of business models around services, and membership, and support, that don’t require selling a GPL product.

    That’s not to say that I don’t think that a) CSS and images don’t catch the GPL, unless they are specifically stated to be released under it b) API’s and Documentation to not dependency make.

  11. Adam,
    I’m not saying people can’t make a living around WordPress … it is possible and it happens all the time. But we’re talking about quality GPL themes getting released on a regular basis. Find me one theme designer who doesn’t sell their themes who has released more than 1 or 2 high quality free, GPL WordPress themes in the last 6 months.

    If there are any, I can give you the names of 2 premium theme designers who have released more than 1 high quality theme for every 1 free theme designer you can name.

    My point isn’t to play “gotcha” … I’m just trying to illustrate that the bulk innovation is coming from the premium guys. Why? Because they make money from the themes they develop. Like it or not, if there’s no monetary benefit to releasing a theme, then the themes just won’t every be developed. (just take a look at 95% of the themes in the /extend/themes/ repository).

  12. You are right Nathan, innovation comes form the guys who do premium themes. They invest more time because they know they are going to sell them. I did not see a really good quality free WP theme for a long long time…

  13. Adam,
    Of course, that’s true. That’s not what I was saying. In fact, I was implying just the opposite. Because the money is in premium themes, free themes are lacking much innovation. So … in order for free themes to match the innovation in premium themes, there needs to be a way to monetize the free themes as well. But it has to be in a sustainable way.

    I fear we’re missing the point here. As long as it’s more profitable to sell quality themes than give them away, the innovation will lie solely with the premium theme developers.

    “Free” is nice and all … but don’t forget how much people like “new”.

  14. The concern isn’t quality—I’m sure there’s just as high a percentage of crap commercial themes as there is free ones. Innovation, yes. Technically. That’s what the GPL is meant to foster, as I understand it. It’s intended to be a ladder up to the giant’s shoulders. What counts as innovation in WordPress themes is a whole other topic though.

    But let’s bactrack a little.

    Are WordPress themes open source? Do they inherit the GPL? We don’t know. Almost certainly the PHP is. The CSS and images might be. They might not be. I may start talking about flowers.

    Does the WordPress community want “premium” themes to exist? Some do. Some don’t. If there’s no ethical or legal reasons why they shouldn’t exist—that is, if their restrictive distribution doesn’t violate the GPL—then they at least have a right to exist.

    • Just a clarification. I’m pretty sure that just being PHP code isn’t sufficient to make it inherit the GPL. For example, if I use an Apache-licensed PHP library and wrap it with PHP code to make it a WP plugin and then distribute the plugin, I don’t force the Apache-licensed PHP library to be GPL. Of course the code that wraps it to make it a plugin would be required to be GPL.

  15. Only recently we were discussing why some on vB.org were so uptight but maybe it is a developer/coder thing

    the comments are somewhat touching on personal angst relating to haves and have nots

  16. Popular as in, there are lots of people selling them? Or popular as in, lots are being sold? The first is true. The latter? I only know of one group of designers that are making a living solely based on selling commercial themes. It’s hard to tell without public data.

    … but would WordPress know? Can they tell that from the plugin/theme api?

  17. Author: Adam
    Comment: Again, I don’t buy it. I haven’t seen a single feature of a Premium Theme that didn’t exist in a free theme first.

    I for one would never buy a free theme

  18. Ian,
    “I only know of one group of designers that are making a living solely based on selling commercial themes.”

    I know several. And I can say, with rare exception, that the ability to sell premium themes full time is directly proportional to the quality of themes released.

  19. As someone who isn’t really part of the WP design world, I find it a bit odd to hear all this debate over innovation. When I went looking for a theme, innovation was the last thing on my mind. I simply wanted a theme that looked good, worked out-of-the-box, made it easy for me to tweak, was optimized for the search engines, and was going to be maintained for the foreseeable future so I wouldn’t have to be looking for a new theme any time soon. Now, if that’s what you call “innovation”, then I guess that’s what I wanted. But to me that sounds more like service, support and stability. And that’s what I was willing to pay money to get.

  20. Come on guys… 74 comments and this whole situation isn’t anywhere closer to any so-called truth!

    We had the same kind of discussions around this so-called WordPress community last year and everyone was predicting the end of the premium theme, because it is GPL code and bla-bla-bla, but a year later, there’s just more premium theme developers (which means there’s more people buying the themes). All of this just comes down to the point I’ve made a few times already: irrespective of whether the WP community wants these themes or not, most of the users aren’t fussed about what the WP community wants.

    So until this situation is sorted out (do I need to mention images & CSS again?), premium theme developers will continue doing what they’re doing now, since they’re supplying to a demand.

    Irrespective of right or wrong; we’re going in circles and next year this time, we’ll be discussing this again.

  21. Ian,
    “As many WordPress users find, “service, support and stability” are not exclusive to commercial themes. They’re exclusive to good themes.”

    Who has more time to devote to “service, support and stability”? Free theme designers who are trying to balance their theme with work, family, hobbies, etc.? Or the guy who, instead of working a full time office job, can provide (at least) 8 solid hours per day to “service, support and stability”?

    At this point in time, I gotta go with the guy who charged me a hundred bucks rather than the guy who does “service, support and stability” whenever he can squeeze it in. I’m not saying that is 100% true all the time, I’m just saying most of the time.

  22. @Nathan You’re probably right there. The designers working full time at it probably have better support.

    @Adii You’re right. The question of images and CSS needs to be sorted out or nothing will get done.

    Does everyone sort of agree in an I-am-not-a-lawyer-ish way that images and CSS are not GPL but the PHP is? It seems like as long as commercial theme developers release their themes in a manner that makes that clear everything is above board.

    Now, are commercial theme developers ready to see their themes released on the WordPress themes directory with different skins and (different names, obviously)? Thesis with a Photoshop-y background and jquery effects? A stripped down Fresh News with swiss style typography and minimalist approach? A pulp-fiction themed Revolution? All for free?

    Not trying to be provocative (okay, I am kinda). But that’s what we’re talking about now.

  23. Saying that graphics/CSS/JS are closed source means that nothing even based on that appearance will appear on wordpress.org/extend/themes. Not even the typography. It does mean that if someone’s built a cool options panel or whathaveyou, that building something based on that is not illegal.

    Do keep in mind though, that this requires someone who payed for the theme would have to choose to release it.

  24. @Ian
    That is the question indeed. I don’t, however, think it’s just a matter of just the CSS and images. You have to take into account the custom PHP that a lot of these themes include as well. I’m not talking about WP-interfacing PHP either. I’m talking about some heavy-duty PHP functions that were written and included in these themes.

    So, if someone wanted to download Thesis, strip out all the CSS, images, and custom PHP that didn’t use WordPress functions, then I suppose maybe you could argue that. Good luck making the theme work as good as it did though.

    Whether or not premium developers would be ok with that … I very much doubt it. Not to mention the fact that one little DMCA takedown notice is enough to scare most people away from even trying it.

  25. Nathan:

    I’ll only speak to numbers I’m personally familiar with. Automattic doesn’t do consulting services in the traditional sense, but we have referred $millions in business to folks on this page:

    http://automattic.com/services/wordpress-consultants/

    Larger contracts (six figures) generally go to “shops,” not individual freelancers. Many of these folks donate their time and efforts back to WP.org, which creates a virtuous cycle of the platform becoming more popular and therefore a bigger market for their services.

    I’m disappointed that there seems to be a general disregard for folks doing GPL themes — the best ones I’ve seen this year have all been Free while honestly the majority of paid stuff I’ve seen has been fairly mediocre.

    If you take paid themes to their logical conclusion you end up with designers basically being a commodity and sites like Template Monster dominating. (It’s happened before in other communities.) I would hate that. I want to empower and reward designers in the long-term, and I think that’ll come from multiple people collaborating in an Open Source manner, just like it has with WordPress. What’s great about the great Free themes is they inspire dozens of others that build on top of them, like when Hemingway came out and looked different from everything before it and then became the base for other exploration.

  26. I think Ian and Nathan’s last two comments pretty much sum up the crux of the issue.

    As Ian said:

    Does everyone sort of agree in an I-am-not-a-lawyer-ish way that images and CSS are not GPL but the PHP is? It seems like as long as commercial theme developers release their themes in a manner that makes that clear everything is above board.

    See, as another IANAL, and as someone who is not emotionally involved in the issue in any way (other than sheer interest in licensing and copyright law – but I got into law school, I didn’t go), this is how I have always understood the whole GPL thing. Packaging might be become about semantics and it might be as simple as putting stuff in different folders, I’m not sure how it would have to work, but while I agree that CSS and images aren’t what the GPL was designed for, it isn’t clear that the CSS anyway doesn’t fall under the GPL in some way.

    In regards to any PHP outside of the WordPress hooks — keep in mind that as far as I can tell, PHP-based stuff (at least PHP 4 stuff) has to include the PHP license. There is an option exception in the GPL for PHP, but anyone wanting to get around not making their PHP stuff available by way of a non-WordPress hook loophole will want to keep that in mind (or at the very least investigate what requirements the PHP license holds one to).

    Nathan said:

    Whether or not premium developers would be ok with that … I very much doubt it. Not to mention the fact that one little DMCA takedown notice is enough to scare most people away from even trying it.

    Frankly, it really doesn’t matter if they are OK with it or not. It also doesn’t matter what the DMCA does – because as this very discussion is proving, the arguments are grey enough and murky enough on both sides that I know if I were served with a takedown notice for something that was trying to claim copyright or IP on something it couldn’t make that claim on (like a PHP template, which is essentially what we are getting at), I’d fight it. Armed with the knowledge of the whole debate, I doubt too many hosts would get involved enough to shut someone down for a perceived copyright violation, or an “unauthorized” use of a theme.

    Right now, the real problem I think that theme developers are going to face are over their own licensing terms like “developer” and “personal” that put arbitrary restrictions over footer links and how many times something can be used. It’s going to be really hard, if not impossible, to enforce any kind of limit like that. The GPL and even Creative Commons is pretty clear about what “attribution” means and it does not mean you have to have a physical link in the footer and the limits on how many servers an individual can put a theme on (assuming they paid for a license or whatever we are calling this) is completely tied up in the greater mess.

    I think if theme developers are honest with themselves, that is their biggest problem with the idea of accepting or even openly licensing their stuff under GPL. If they do that, they can’t put license limits on a theme (you could do support limits, not physical limits) and they certainly couldn’t file a DMCA against someone who released a slightly modified stylesheet and theme for free or for payment of their own. Right now, theme developers are at a risk if they do try to file a legal claim, because unless you want to spend a lot of money defending your position (and the FSF and companies dedicated to supporting the GPL have more resources than you do), you probably aren’t going to get the outcome you want.

    I really don’t think this is about users or customers. People will buy something for support, for convenience, for lots of reasons. I think the right product or the right product with the accompanying service can make money regardless of the license structure. And while I’m actually not a huge fan of the GPL or Richard Stallman in general, if you are going to develop an add-on for a product that IS GPL, you need to take the licensing issues seriously.

    The reason that the market keeps getting bigger is because there hasn’t been a test case. WordPress probably won’t go after theme developers because it isn’t worth it to them. The action comes when a theme developer takes on another developer or a user for violating the terms of the license as they see it. That’s the only way we’ll probably ever get a definitive answer to this entire mess.

  27. In my opinion, a lot of the “PREMIUM” sites I’ve seen lately are just taking other magazine style themes and merging them together and calling them “PREMIUM”. None of them are really functioning and looking like a custom theme. Just pulling parts and copying other GOOD themes.

    I personally make my living designing custom wordpress themes. The clients I work with know there are free themes out there and a lot of clients come to me to create a CUSTOM design to fit into that free theme. I do not see any issue with someone designing custom or commercial themes for people to pay for.

    Yes, there are a lot of free themes out there. Yes, a lot of people use them. Then you have a lot of people who want to look and feel unique when someone visits their site. Why should that be a problem at all?

    Most custom blog designers and commercial blog designs I’ve seen and talked to also have released free stuff throughout the past couple years. I am in the process of releasing two (magazine style and regular blog style). Should I be punished because I also sell custom designs?

  28. BSK says:

    Interesting discussion! As a new user, i think the idea of paying for a theme is really one of choice. I personally will continue to pay for those themes i think fit my interests. And btw, premium themes in my experience come in all ‘grades’. The advantages of using the themes to new users i think make economic sense most of the time e.g. shortening the turnaround period, ease of use and support. These may not be a big deal to experienced users but for me they make WP a brilliant CMS (IMH short experience ofcourse).
    However, the redistribution issue is one that can not be ignored. I should think not many users are going to buy a theme for redistribution purposes but how do you balance the incentive for developer innovation and the need to encourage wider WP usership and experimentation? How do you get flexible on users creating derivatives of your works without compromising your efforts? When you look at the numbers from say theme clubs, at what levels would you consider lifting restrictions on derivative themes and/or ensuring partner user partnership on derivative works for say 2nd tier theme income? What about limited theme developments for users who can then decide how they redistribute and/or use more flexibly (paying more ofcourse per theme)?
    I think the bigger picture is importnt; there is the other 3B of the world that is yet to get web2.0 going, and my guess is it will be some market? How do you position your expertise, through easing the use of WP through your themes, and making them more accessible (and usable on mobile devices). I think the time is now to start looking at business models that take the longer term into account. The users need you, you need the users and you need to make WP even more ‘dummy user friendly and everybody wins. Otherwise the idea that the users simply ain’t aware of the issues isn’t exactly a smart of doing things. Just my 2 cents as new user!

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  30. As most of the comments on this thread are from theme developers and people who are heavily involved in the WordPress community, I thought I’d put a slightly different slant on it from a happy customer’s point of view.

    I’ve been running websites for years and like so many website owners a few years ago I discovered “blogging” and added a WordPress blog to a few of my sites. I didn’t have a clue that WP could offer anything more than add this diary style section to my website — I was naive about the capabilities of WP, but so are probably 99.9% of WP users even now.

    Then, by chance, I came across some of the custom work that Chris Pearson had done for clients and it was a “lightbulb” moment for me. I suddenly realized that WP could be used as a complete content management system, not just a “blog”, but after much searching I couldn’t find ANY free themes on WordPress.org, or anywhere else, that would provide me with a starting point for building and managing complete websites with it. I appreciate that in the last year this has probably changed, but at the time this was very much the case, especially for a relative beginner to WP.

    The ONLY out-of-the-box type solution I could find was Brian Gardner’s original Revolution theme. It was a premium theme with a price tag of something like $50 at the time, but after spending days – perhaps even weeks – searching for something I could use as a starting point, paying the designer a small charge for his work didn’t just NOT worry me, I was absolutely DELIGHTED to have found him.

    It was a complete no-brainer for me….. I could go on tirelessly searching, attempt to learn everything from scratch myself using the information in the Codex, or I could fork out fifty bucks for an out-of-the-box solution that would show me at a glance how all of the templates were tied together.

    I didn’t know anything about the GPL and personally I couldn’t have cared less. My time was more important to me than the $50 I was going to spend on something that would teach me exactly how it all worked. I was looking for a solution – and in this case it was “the perfect solution” – along with good, solid support if I had any questions about customizing the theme.

    As a professional website developer I didn’t want to rely on free themes with poor design, lack of features, “potentially” bad coding and zero support, so I was more than happy to pay a small premium to Brian, who at the time was the only person who had stepped up the game and taken theme development to a whole new level.

    (No offence intended to any other theme developers who were doing a similar thing 18 months ago – it’s just that I probably couldn’t find you!)

    And my story isn’t unusual by any means. If more WP users were aware of its full capabilities and knew about the products and services that are available to them, the demand (as if it isn’t already!) would be huge. Most people just don’t know how damn powerful WP is…. yet.

    So, rather than deliberating over what a GPL license means, why not ask yourselves this question……

    What do your customers/users REALLY want?

    The answer may surprise you.

  31. While I’m glad that the best themes Matt’s seen this year have been GPL, it would have substantially helped his argument if he could have brought himself to name them. Perhaps their creators have yet to email him begging for ‘significant promotion’.

  32. Ian, you should create a poll on this issue. It’s kind of hard to read though 80+ comments and get a stance of where everyone is. Besides that, each comment is a page or so long.

    I’m going with, “Theme developers and designer deserve to be rewarded and innovation deserves to be promoted.”

  33. @That Girl Again Actually the best themes I’ve seen all year have been free. I haven’t bothered to check if they were explicitly released as GPL but they were all free.

    And yes, I have been keeping track but I won’t give my opinion now—I’m saving them up for a roundup in December.

    Anyway, it would be really cool if Matt did write a post about his favorite free themes. I’m sure the theme authors would appreciate the links, traffic, coolness, etc.

    @Dan Cole I’m not sure a poll would really help things here. It seems pretty clear what the consensus is re. “Should commercial themes exist”. The commentators on ThemeShaper—for the most part—say yes.

    That said, email me when you release your commercial theme licensed under the GPL. I’ll try and send some traffic and attention your way.

  34. The reason why this topic comes up for debate every few months is because there is simply no definitive answer. It is not illegal to sell WordPress themes and as long as it’s a lucrative pursuit for designers, the premium theme market will live on.

    What is hard to accept is that for every premium theme put up for sale there is usually another equally as good free theme released under GPL or near equivalent license. There are still some folks out there who release high quality themes at zero cost with no back link obligation and not for the purposes of a sales gimmick.

    I’ve long thought that there should be a definitive WordPress theme gallery, endorsed and possibly run by the folks at Autommatic and made up of the top free WordPress themes. I’m talking about a gallery that would be peer reviewed and each theme would need to pass stingent criteria to be accepted. Criteria based on coding standards, aesthetic standards and usability etc. This would become the WordPress theme flagship and would run parallel to WordPress.org. It would be the first port of call for anyone looking for a WordPress theme. All paid themes would become a secondary option.

    I’m aware that such a resource would take substantial time, money and manpower to build and maintain, but given the WordPress trajectory, the aims and ethos that it has followed over the years, it seems like a logicall and hnourable step. I’d be willing to chip in on such a venture and I’m sure many others would too.

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  36. I’d be willing to chip in on such a venture and I’m sure many others would too.

    Would they, though? I seem to remember Matt appealing for volunteers to run themes.wordpress.net when he managed to get the subdomain back from Thomas, and that came to nothing.

    At the moment, Automattic only has about thirty employees, of which they can only spare one to maintain the current theme repository. Forget about vetting or judging: just weeding out the most obviously broken themes and throwing the remaining ones up there is a full-time job. As Matt makes clear above, we should be grateful to have even one person working full-time on .org themes (and it took a year for them to be in a position to do that much). Realistically, Automattic are not going to take on another dozen or so staff members purely in order to run another non-profit-making community resource, not when they could put those people to work supporting corporate clients or developing for wordpress.com.

  37. Pingback: Ledger Pad » Paying For WordPress Themes

  38. Open Source is what it is, and adding value is a skill not necessarily all of us have, so some people are prepared to pay for a premium theme vs. laying out for custom web development. It really makes sound fiscal sense, and the constant stream of WordPress updates will ensure that your expensive website isn’t obsolete in a year’s time. People like Adii and Woothemes really add value, and I can only see premium themes becoming more and more poular….and divers, of course. Exciting stuff!

  39. Samuel Thurston says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. As someone who has been involved with open source and the GPL for over a decade, it has never ceased to amaze me some of the common misconceptions about the GPL by some of its most ardent and vocal supporters.

    First of all to clarify the legal issues surrounding the GPL. It is perfectly legal to sell GPL software. The obligation that a distributor of GPL software has, whether for profit or not, is to provide the source code of the GPL work to the distributee. This is where the GPL doesn’t precisely fit source-only code models. However, I could sell an obfuscated php version of the theme, and I would still be obligated to provide the source to anyone I sold it to. That said, there’s nothing preventing someone I’ve sold it to from giving it away for free after the fact.

    The prevailing analysis about copyright is true: Work that is not directly tied to a GPL work (through API’s) is not required to be GPL, therefore images and CSS which can be used independently of the php templates can be released under any license of the creator’s choosing. They can be combined in the same distribution package. The GPL does not ‘infect’ proprietary code it is distributed with. To correctly follow the GPL, however, the php parts that use the API should retain the GPL notices.

    This mess could have been avoided by the theme API being under the LGPL which allows linking without license inheritance.

    Now as for Matt’s comments about vendors being ‘disrespectful’ to the community, I think that’s an unproductive way of viewing the situation. Premium distributors offer a value-add to the community in a different way than open contributors. Not everyone feels that their time spent coding should be released as a free for all back into the wild. It’s great for us that there are some that do. But open source software in general would not be in the strong position it is today without the aid of commercial support. There’s room for everyone at the table.

  40. I was going to respond, but Samuel basically said everything I was thinking.

    I don’t think anyone is making the rational argument that commercial themes don’t have value (whether through service, support or a quickly made, quality base), it is just about how it is licensed. The CSS’s linkage is debatable, I don’t think images are, realistically, but that doesn’t preclude a theme from being sold.

    I understand theme developers fearing that their work will be undercut or given away for free, but as I said before, that’s a trade-off of contributing to an open source project. In most open source project,, releasing the source code doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact on the commercial viability of a project, because people still have to compile the code, modify it to work on their systems, etc. CentOS is a few weeks behind RHEL for that reason, it takes time to take the source code and make it easy for end users to install, but plenty of people, businesses especially who need support, will buy RHEL licenses. With WordPress and PHP based stuff, it’s a bit different because the source code IS already completed. The end user just has to upload the file. So I understand why commercial themers worry about losing business; it is a valid concern. But its validity doesn’t change the terms of the licensing structure associated with the project.

    I also agree that had the theme API been released LGPL, though I’m unsure how much b2′s legacy impacted that decision.

    I believe that quality commercial themes add value to an open source project, they don’t detract from it. The only real debate is about licensing. I think that if the theme developers and WordPress could continue to discuss these sorts of issues in a forum that isn’t a blog post (not that this isn’t great, Ian) and the GPL requirements were better outlined, much of this would be cleared up.

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