Can I Make a ‘Premium’ Theme My Own? And Then Release It?

Can you make a ‘Premium’ Theme your own? And then release it? For free? Or for a fee? The answer is simple. Yes.

That is, if the ‘Premium’ WordPress Theme in question—premium meaning you have to pay for it—is licensed under the GPL. The GPL is the GNU General Public License; a document included with a bunch of different open source projects, like WordPress, that covers the terms of the release and makes sure that it always remains open source. Anyway, what does this mean for ‘Premium’ Themes, you ask.

It means you can take a ‘Premium’ WordPress Theme you bought and do whatever you want with it—except release it again as a ‘closed source’ project. The really cool thing? This gives you the freedom to take that project and improve on it.

Here’s an example. You’re a designer and you love working with Photoshop. But it doesn’t have an instant rainbows-and-unicorns button. Adobe won’t put it in. If Photoshop were an open source project you could take the code and add in the technology to instantly add rainbows and unicorns to every one of your photos—and then give your customized Photoshop [RaU Edition] to anyone who wanted it. Presumably, anyone who loved rainbows and unicorns as much as you.

Same thing with GPL WordPress Themes.

But is it right? Not everyone thinks so. Some people have suggested it’s sleazy (mostly in response to people buying a Theme and immediately turning around to release it for free). What follows is my answer to the question. It’s something I posted earlier on the WordPress Tavern forums and here now where everyone reading ThemeShaper can easily find it.

Ian Stewart’s 4 Ideas About Modifying Premium Themes and Releasing Them

1. Redistributing unmodified GPL code over the internet is not sleazy. Redistributing unmodified GPL code is what the GPL is all about—even if the author of that code is charging for it and depending on that income.

2. Redistributing unmodified GPL code over the internet is pointless and stupid. If you’re doing it as a matter of free open source principles, sure, I could see that—but you’re muddying up the web. It doesn’t add any value to the code and unless you plan on keeping up with updates to that code you’re actually doing everyone who sees that redistributed code a huge disservice. Way to go.

3. I say “everyone who sees that redistributed code” because that will be a small amount of people. A small amount of people who will be rightfully wary of downloading that code. The vast majority of people will choose to download that code from the original author. Anyone want to start downloading WordPress from “www.crazywpdownloadsite.com”? I thought so. Remember that “trust” and “authority” are huge things on the web. People selling GPL WordPress Themes: stop worrying about this.

4. Now that we know that people redistributing unmodified GPL WordPress Themes over the internet are stupid we need to recognize how awesome it is that people can modify GPL WordPress Themes and redistribute them online. Theme-sellers: this is how you got started selling themes. Every single one of you. Remember when you were nervously trying to lock up the code for your first theme options pages behind a restrictive license? The code that you essentially copy-pasted from the same 2 online tutorials I and countless others did? I’m looking at all of you. Anyway, where would you be if that code wasn’t given to you in the first place? Where would you be if you didn’t fork the Default Theme? Or Sandbox? Or Classic Theme? Where would you be if Matt didn’t fork b2? Don’t worry about people forking your code. The freedom to redistribute modified code is incredibly awesome and, no exaggeration, is quite literally making the world a better place.

What Now?

You can find a whole whack of people releasing their Premium Themes under the GPL License on the official WordPress Commercial Themes Directory. You can find all my commercial Child Themes for Thematic in the ThemeShaper Thematic Theme Store.

Anyone ready to start making WordPress Themes awesome-er?

29 thoughts on “Can I Make a ‘Premium’ Theme My Own? And Then Release It?

  1. Great post Ian. Plus theme developers still learn from the code of their peers, even after they are charging for their themes. Nathan Rice had a tweet a couple of weeks ago saying that it looks like everyone is using his theme options page now. He wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or irked. In reality it’s just GPL doing what it was intended to do.

  2. I had never considered doing something like this, but seeing I have already purchased a couple of premium themes and already made some mods to them, it might help trying a release or 2. Thanks for the inspiration Ian!

  3. Here’s a tricky question:

    - say I take a premium theme and make it snazzy for a WPMU home page. Or buddypress-ify it.

    Who supports it?
    What if I want to sell it?

    More wondering than anything. At some point it gets a little sticky.

    I do wholehearteldy agree that taking a theme – any theme – and making a bunch of changes is great.

    • If you modify the Theme, but don’t release it, that depends on the arrangement you had with the people you bought it from. If you release it, no one, or you. Your choice.

      If you want to sell it, you sell it.

  4. This is a great post. Although I believe the reason we haven’t seen any modified commercial GPL themes released for free yet isn’t because developers aren’t aware of their right to do so. Rather it’s mostly because they’re afraid the “community” will chastise them for it, even though that’s what the GPL is made for.

    And no, I’m not talking about those guys that buy up all the commercial GPL themes and sell them all for pennies on the dollar. I’m talking about reputable developers who have the skills and know-how to make commercial GPL themes better, but aren’t sure of the best way to go about it.

    Hopefully this post will reduce the stigma associated with releasing paid themes for free, and hopefully we’ll see some great modifications released to the community, by the community.

  5. Great post Ian and well said…there were two statements that really stood out for me:

    Theme-sellers: this is how you got started selling themes. Every single one of you.

    and

    Presumably, anyone who loved rainbows and unicorns as much as you.

    I do love unicorns ever since seeing the film Legend.

  6. Bob says:

    “- say I take a premium theme and make it snazzy for a WPMU home page. Or buddypress-ify it.

    Who supports it?
    What if I want to sell it?”

    Thats the real issue here. If you support it, you offer value. If you sell it without support, then you have sold someone a potential black hole. At this point it is usually the original premium theme designer who ends up looking like the bad guy when they refuse to offer support for an orphaned fork of their work, as the knock off “creater” is probably no where to be found.

  7. John Myrstad says:

    I agree ( theoretically) with your 4 ideas, but I`m missing a discussion on the copyright and attribution issue.

    If you recycle and modify commercial distributed code, what do you do with the original authors copyright, and how do you attribute the original author ?

    • I believe the standard way is to change the name of the project and prominently thank the originators of the project in some way. That’s not a legal opinion but I looked to the WordPress project as an example when I forked The Sandbox Theme and everything seemed to work out well. If I were releasing a modified commercial Theme I would do the same. Probably with a very prominent link on the release pages and in any documentation.

  8. Great post. However, I’m still confused about how this relates to building a customised site for a paying client.

    If the the work I’ve done for that client must be under the GPL, then does that mean that anyone can request I release it publicly? This doesn’t seem right — a client’s paid me to produce them an exclusive custom theme, it shouldn’t be made available to anyone else — and definitely not for anyone else to modify it and re-release it.

    Could you clarify this please?

    • The GPL only covers what happens when you release or distribute your code. And it doesn’t put you under any compulsion to release that code (though many people feel compelled—for other reasons—to release custom code they’ve done for clients—often at their clients bidding).

      Or, in other words, keep on keeping on.

    • Matt: What Ian says is true. Also importantly, images+CSS are separate and even with distribution the GPL does not infect them unless you want it to.

      I have seen your exact questions so often that I wrote a post to clarify the issue in more detail because the information is way too verbose for a comment.

      Ian wrote a great post here. I have also been following the topic closely and have added my two cents which will be hopefully useful to folks like you who do work for hire. : )

  9. i share your point of view, because essential everything in this world is just a copy of a copy of a copy inspired by some event or person in our life …. for the benefit of the whole. However unique you think you may be, you are not. When one takes a premium theme and modifies its styling , and then releases it for free or charges a small fee of $25 for example, it’s justified because you may not be charging for the theme code itself you are charging for the remixing or styling that you did, however small those may be, and support given by you ….

  10. John Myrstad says:

    Free GPL webinar which may interest some of the readers of this article: http://tinyurl.com/yk4jsu2

    Unraveling the Complexities of the GPL
    Wednesday, October 14, 2009 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM EDT

    With 65% of the more than 200,000 open source projects available on the Internet using GPL licenses, they are the most widely used open source licenses in the world. The way that software development organizations integrate code licensed under the GPL and AGPL into their applications and services, and depending on how that code is deployed, can expose a company and its intellectual property to significant risk. Despite widespread adoption of GPL-based code, developers and end-users continue to wrestle with three main issues regarding GPL license use and obligations:

    - What constitutes a derivative work?

    - What constitutes a separate and independent work?

    - What constitutes distribution?

  11. There’s a distinction, even in the GPL opinion that the FSF gave to Automattic – the PHP of the theme is GPL, but the CSS/images are not. If you want to re-release a permium theme, you’ll have to start the CSS from scratch (or from a GPL/non-premium source).

    And yes, if there’s a copyright notice, the copyright notice must be maintained in the forked release, not just a thanks – a “contains code that is © the original designer”

    • If you want to re-release a permium theme, you’ll have to start the CSS from scratch (or from a GPL/non-premium source).

      Good point. Unless the CSS is released under the GPL too. And good point about the copyright. Attribution has to be “equivalent”, right?

      • I forget what the specific wording is, but basically it has to be the same notice (footer, dashboard, css file, wherever the original notice was).

    • It is hard to enforce the copyrights on a full web-site / theme, now shall we start wasting time with enforcing license on CSS? The sleazy people will just change the IDs from “#mainMenu” to #menu_main” and that’s it.
      As for images, they just change the name of the file and re-save the image at a different quality rate => different file name, different file size…

      Now at least we can point to a full site and say: stolen.
      With GPL we will have to prove that a few lines of CSS code and some images: “look very familiar”.

      GPL is great for people that like sharing very much.
      GPL is not so good for people that earn their living by “active” and “creative” work.

      Music notes are also “open-source”: you don’t see people throwing stones at musicians for using the same instruments and same “words” from a language to create songs.

      Just my 2 cents on the matter.

    • In the early days of WordPress someone said in the forum that the CSS of a theme had to be more than 51% different to be called your own. Plainly ridiculous but how would you judge a CSS rewrite? Changing a font? a width? Just the colours? How far does someone have to go to satisfy this rewrite? Or is this ‘after the fact consensus’?
      I don’t do themes, don’t write them, have no interest in them but this rewrite has always puzzled me. Images I get completely, CSS looks very muddy.

      • As far as “calling it your own”, it’s certainly hairy.
        As far as changing the license, you’d have to have permission from everyone who contributed code, or you’d have to use all new code.

  12. Pingback: Interview with the Owner of Premium Mod | Theme Lab

  13. Pingback: wordpress dev » Blog Archive » Interview with the Owner of Premium Mod

  14. K FLYER says:

    @Ian, I whole heartedly agree with your arguement. But if someone redistributed your premium child themes for free – does it mean you will be ok with it ?

  15. Ok I know the last discussion on this was about a year ago but I just thought of a scenario. What if you found a non GPL theme and you recreated using all your own code and images but it has virtually the same style as the original.
    1) Would it be ok to use for your own means only
    2) what about releasing it.

    • 1) no 2) no. the design is the part that the GPL can never be construed to cover. That’s just ripping off the design of the site, and that’s always been bad form, long before any discussion of the GPL was relevant.

      • Thank you. I’m not trying to start up another debate I’m just simply curious. Some times getting straight answers on these matters can be hard pressed. Though I did have one more

        1) Regarding my last post I am totally aware that it is bad to do so but I was just trying to figure out is it legal to copy a theme using all your own code and images?

        I am a theme developer and would like To know for future reference. I am not looking to rip off other peoples work!

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