Envato’s License Changes For The Worse

envato-license

There’s been a lot of talk lately about ThemeForest, Envato, WordCamps, and the GPL. I’ve been paying close attention because, you know, themes. I love them. I think they’re a huge part of the WordPress mission to democratize publishing and I think the good ones are making the world a more beautiful and better place. I also think they should be free, open source software — the whole deal, CSS, images and all — just like WordPress. Try deleting all the CSS and images from your favorite theme and from WordPress. It’ll help you understand why, while technically theme authors don’t have to let you fully own those things, they really shouldn’t be taking that freedom away from you and locking them down. This is one of the core values of WordPress and fundamental to the market in which people develop and sell themes.

Anyway, other people have made this point more eloquently than me. What I really want to talk about is a change in the Envato license that no one is really talking about. That is, the recent Marketplace License Updates and how it affects WordPress theme licensing on ThemeForest.

If you take a look at the current Regular License you’ll see the GPL mentioned and how it can apply to themes sold there:

Some Items are partially subject to a GNU General Public License (GPL) or another open source license even if the Item was entirely created by the author. For these Items, a ‘split license’ applies. This means that the open source license applies to an extent that’s determined by the open source license terms and the nature of the Item, and this license applies to the rest of the Item.

This links to a Knowledge Base article that notes, “The PHP component and integrated HTML are covered by the GPL. The rest of the components created by the author (such as the CSS, images, graphics, design, photos, etc) are covered by the marketplace license.”

Envato has made their stance much clearer here. Clearer than it used to be. The old license used to say something different:

If the whole, or part, of the Work has been created using materials which are the subject of a GNU General Public License (GPL), your use of the Work (or part Work) is subject to the specific terms of the GPL in place of the foregoing conditions (to the extent the GPL applies).

I know how I read that. If I create a GPL-licensed stylesheet — you know, the thing that really makes my theme a theme — I can sell my theme on ThemeForest with the correct license. “ThemeForest has my back here. They believe in WordPress values too.” But it turns out that can’t be the case anymore.

It seems like StudioPress thought so too. Up until about a month ago, they had their intentionally 100% GPL-licensed themes for sale on ThemeForest. And I know there are others selling their themes too who also want to do the right thing. But they can’t. Not now. Not with ThemeForest.

There have been a lot of strong words and feelings shared over this latest commotion, but I’m not really mad about this. I’m really sad. I had a lot of hope that Envato would wind up doing the right thing here. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Collis and Japh from Envato about proper theme licensing — both of whom seem like really great, funny, smart people — and I was hopeful that Envato would move towards allowing theme authors to do what they want to do: help WordPress and its users grow. It looks like that’s not going to happen now.

And it’s too bad. I’d love to see Envato doing the right thing. It could be amazing for everyone. Until then, remember: The best WordPress themes are free and open source software just like WordPress — including the ones you pay for.

(If you’re one of those people selling the best WordPress themes, send us an email at themes at automattic dot com and let us know. It’d be great to see those themes become WordPress.com Premium Themes.)

58 thoughts on “Envato’s License Changes For The Worse

  1. Try deleting all the CSS and images from your favorite theme and from WordPress. It’ll help you understand why… they really shouldn’t be taking that freedom away.

    I’ve been watching the debate as well, but this is a point that resonates with me and I’ve not heard elsewhere. Very well put, Ian.

  2. I understand the licensing thing. Both your stances make sense to me.

    What I don’t understand is why an organization that promotes openness and community would prohibit people who sell theme forrest from speaking or organizing events. I’ve heard the argument, but I think it’s silly. In fact, it makes me really upset.

    • I have to agree with David here. Envato is 100% legal in what they do, and lots of developers make a living selling through them. You might disagree with their philosophy, but it’s permitted.

      I feel like WordCamp is supposed to be a neutral discussion ground, but it’s being used as a bargaining chip instead.

  3. Technically, themes would have to be released under the GPL as a requirement of WordPress being licensed under the GPL… which makes Themeforest’s position tend toward the unconscionable. If WP was licensed under the LGPL, themes and plugins could use any license they wanted. This is not the case, but for reasons of its own, the WP Foundation has allowed that practice to go on without much intervention. In this case, Themeforest seems to be *requiring* its authors to contravene the GPL, and that’s a pretty big deal.

    I think Matt should just solicit an opinion from the FSF and put an end to it. They’re more than happy to comment on suspected GPL violations.

    • Themes are released under the GPL, at least the PHP part of them, which is the only part legally required to be as it is the “derivative” of WordPress. That’s why it’s a split GPL. Envato is 100% legal in what they’re doing.

      • I’m not actually arguing that and I mention it in the post.

        Try deleting all the CSS and images from your favorite theme and from WordPress. It’ll help you understand why, while technically theme authors don’t have to let you fully own those things, they really shouldn’t be taking that freedom away from you and locking them down.

      • shawn says:

        @Ian Stewart: Deleting css/images is not the issue here, it wether the licence is GPL compliant and it is.

        Directly or Indirectly wordpress has no right to add restrictions to the GPL license and the use of GPL software as it seems to be the case by it’s banning of Envato sellers to its events.

      • “legal” usually sets a much lower bar than moral … what they are doing may be legal and still wrong (maybe, one day, legal will catch up).

        … and in this case moral is also aligned with smart … in everything I read I could not find one logical reason for Envanto’s stance. It is unclear what anyone has to gain from their choices and position.

        immoral and stupid

    • Anu says:

      Matt has solicited an opinion about this , from the Software Freedom Law Center, who are (in his words) ” the world’s preëminent experts on the GPL”.

      Their opinion was as follows

      In conclusion, the WordPress themes supplied contain elements that are derivative of WordPress’s copyrighted code. These themes, being collections of distinct works (images, CSS files, PHP files), need not be GPL-licensed as a whole. Rather, the PHP files are subject to the requirements of the GPL while the images and CSS are not. Third-party developers of such themes may apply restrictive copyrights to these elements if they wish.

      So, that’s fairly definitive – images and CSS are not subject to the requirements of the GPL Matt’s response was

      Even though graphics and CSS aren’t required to be GPL legally, the lack thereof is pretty limiting. Can you imagine WordPress without any CSS or javascript? So as before, we will only promote and host things on WordPress.org that are 100% GPL or compatible.

      http://wordpress.org/news/2009/07/themes-are-gpl-too/

  4. shawn says:

    The problem I’m having with this and the good folks at WordPress is that the GPL is clear in stating that no one can add restrictions to how you choose to use “Free Software”

    “Can apply” is a matter of opinion.

    If you take a look at the current Regular License you’ll see the GPL mentioned and how it can apply to themes sold there:

    This is a definitive statement.

    Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

    The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
    The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
    The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

    Creative work is not covered by the GPL

    You can apply the GPL to any kind of work, as long as it is clear what constitutes the “source code” for the work. The GPL defines this as the preferred form of the work for making changes in it.

    The fact is once compliance is met as seems to be the case in this instance. WordPress cannot add any other restrictions to the use of GPL software something which they are doing.

    Embrace the WordPress license. If distributing WordPress-derivative works (themes, plugins, WP distros), any person or business should give their users the same freedoms that WordPress itself provides. Note: this is one step above simple compliance, which requires PHP code to be GPL/compatible but allows proprietary licenses for JavaScript, CSS, and images. 100% GPL or compatible is required for promotion at WordCamps when WordPress-derivative works are involved, the same guidelines we follow on WordPress.org.

    The GPL is clear you cannot add any restrictions as to how GPL software is used!!!

    -shawn

  5. OK, I’ve spent nearly an hour researching this issue. I’m more confused than I was when I started reading. I’m just going to get back to work, building themes and letting end users do whatever the hell they want with them.

  6. ’m just going to get back to work, building themes and letting end users do whatever the hell they want with them.

    Love it.

    Anu, thanks for that link (must keep that handy).

    I’d agree that a theme without CSS is not really a theme (a framework, maybe) though you can easily build a nice one without images… but I certainly see the logic in the interpretation of the GPL here. In my mind there’s still an issue with Themeforest preventing their authors from releasing their CSS under the GPL, because that restricts the rights of the authors (to choose their license) as well as the users (who have a more restrictive license). If Themeforest wants to play this split game, why can’t I freely download the GPL portions of any of their themes, and only pay when I download the CSS and image files? That should be the logical conclusion of the split-license argument, but somehow I don’t see that happening.

    Elsewhere someone said that if you have a problem with the GPL, you shouldn’t be developing for WordPress. Seems apropos… if Themeforest’s issue is so significant as to prevent their authors from using it, then they really aren’t embracing the WordPress ethos. On that basis, banning them from certain types of community participation (where they become spokespeople or promoters) is fully justified. The message is that if it’s okay to restrict their authors, they should be prepared to live with restrictions being placed upon them as well.

    Even if what they’re doing is allowed under the GPL, it seems to me like they’re being called on a golden rule violation. Plus, my mother always told me that turnabout was fair play.

    • shawn says:

      I agree with you Envato should let developers choose….

      In my mind there’s still an issue with Themeforest preventing their authors from releasing their CSS under the GPL, because that restricts the rights of the authors (to choose their license) as well as the users (who have a more restrictive license).

      The problem is WordPress.org forces theme designers / developers to release all their images and css under the GPL restricting the rights of authors to choose, and we have no problem with it, why is that???

      • WordPress.org doesn’t force theme authors to release their images and CSS under the GPL but they do “only promote and host things on WordPress.org that are 100% GPL or compatible”.

      • shawn says:

        Even though graphics and CSS aren’t required to be GPL legally, the lack thereof is pretty limiting. Can you imagine WordPress without any CSS or javascript? So as before, we will only promote and host things on WordPress.org that are 100% GPL or compatible.

        Force, “only promote and host things…” is there really a difference, can you add themes that do not license their images and css under the GPL to the repository????

      • ThemeForest “forces” only in the same way WordPress.org “forces”.

        If you list themes on WordPress.org, you must use the GPL license for everything in the theme.

        If you list themes on ThemeForest, you must use the 100% GPL compliant license that protects your CSS, images, etc., while keeping the PHP GPL.

        Really, there’s no forcing either way though. If you don’t want to play by the rules of either theme listing, don’t use them.

    • Quite technically, you should be able to ask the folks at ThemeForest for the GPL portion of ANY THEME’S SOURCE CODE and they are required to provide it to you. Same would go for WordPress.com and other sites with GPL code.

      Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about that.

      • That’s correct, and it’s where there’s a having-cake vs. eating-cake problem for Themeforest. There are some great themes that I might be happy to write my own css for, just to get all the php & js to build on. Then maybe I’d GPL it and upload to the WP Themes Directory…

      • Anu says:

        You’re wrong. The GPL does not require source code to be publicly available.

        The GPL site has a good FAQ which answers a lot of these sorts of questions.

        if you release the modified version to the public in some way, the GPL requires you to make the modified source code available to the program’s users, under the GPL.

        http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html

      • I should have been more clear in my reply — because it’s being publicly distributed, the source must be made available. If it were not distributed, there’s no obligation to release anything at all.

        The GPL does not require you to release your modified version, or any part of it. You are free to make modifications and use them privately, without ever releasing them. This applies to organizations (including companies), too; an organization can make a modified version and use it internally without ever releasing it outside the organization.

        But if you release the modified version to the public in some way, the GPL requires you to make the modified source code available to the program’s users, under the GPL.

      • Anu says:

        The code must be available to the people it’s being distributed to – ie the people who pay for it.

        These people are then free in turn to do what they want, including giving it away for free.

      • Right, the key is to the program’s users. Thinking through that, I think they can sell the CSS and include the GPL code as an extra. Any recipient of that GPL code can do what they want with it including redistribute, but Themeforest themselves would not be required to.

      • Anu says:

        It is perfectly legal, permissible and morally acceptable to charge for GPL code.

        What can’t be done is then restrict what the people who purchase the code do with the code, except that they must also comply with the GPL with regards to that code.

  7. It’s like Envato is crying foul for showing up to a Mardi Gras theme party dressed like the guys from Mad Men. Play by the rules or go have an Envato Camp.

    • But they are playing by the rules. They are, without a doubt, 100% legal in what they’re doing. They’re 100% compliant. If you say otherwise, than you don’t know the GPL.

      The ridiculousness of all this is that theme authors are prohibited from helping out or speaking at WordCamps.

  8. Pingback: WordPress.org vs Envato - Which Side Are You On? : WPMayor

  9. Karen says:

    This seems like important info. But a only a very small core of your readers will understand. Can you summarize what this means, maybe in a new last paragraph or two? Just something so that the “civilians” here can understand.
    Many thanks!

  10. Michael says:

    Hi,

    You write that Envato should “do the right thing” three times. But, aren’t they? They’re a private company, well within their legal rights, respecting the GPL.

    I understand that you guys are the biggest GPL evangelizers out there and you want to protect WordPress and the community. But, I’m bothered by the good vs. bad narrative that’s being pushed, where using a split license becomes a moral failing. Shouldn’t it be about choice?

    I do agree that Envato should let their users choose whether to split the license or go 100% GPL. I don’t understand why they don’t. But punishing ThemeForest members seems like an example of philosophy trumping reasonability.

    • Envato doesn’t seem to be making it about choice; they prevent theme authors from distributing with a full GPL license; they force the split license upon theme authors from everything I’ve read in this debate so far.

      Everyone’s free to make and license themes however they choose, but the WordPress Foundation requires a higher standard of those who speak at / run / represent official WordCamp events. 100% GPL if you want to speak at a WordCamp. That seems so incredibly simple to me.

      • I totally agree; the thing that drives me crazy about this is that what Envato calls a “protection” of their members rights is really a *lack of choice* in disguise.

        If the GPL about freedoms, then why the desire to avoid giving content creators so much as a basic choice in how they would personally like to license their creations? What does Envato stand to gain from a “one size fits all” licensing strategy? What does it stand to lose by giving them a choice?

      • As I mentioned above, there’s nothing more forceful about ThemeForest’s split license than there is about WordPress.org’s absolute GPL.

        You can list your theme in either. Both have restrictions. Or you can list yourself, and choose your own alternative.

      • Japh, there is something more forceful about TF’s license in that it significantly restricts user rights and freedoms, and you pay authors (sometimes their entire income) who are forced to use your proprietary license over one they’d prefer that protects user rights. WordPress.org is a community of people who want to share their creative work in the same manner as the platform they’re built on, WordPress.

        Second, there is no such thing as a split license — there are just two licenses applying to different parts of things that are being distributed in the same package. That doesn’t comprise a single license you can label as “split.”

      • shawn says:

        Japh, there is something more forceful about TF’s license in that it significantly restricts user rights and freedoms, and you pay authors (sometimes their entire income) who are forced to use your proprietary license over one they’d prefer that protects user rights. WordPress.org is a community of people who want to share their creative work in the same manner as the platform they’re built on, WordPress.

        Matt,

        There is not, at least not to the designer, as a designer/developer I can afford to GPL all of my code and not worry about using it again even in commercial WP projects. I cannot risk using creative assets over and over, design (visual) is not as reusable as code. If it were wouldn’t all of the 60,470,990 WordPress sites be using the Twenty Twelve theme?

        In my case WordPress.org by taking away my right to choose as the GPL intended is limiting my income and could be considered the worst of the two! The GPL is clear you cannot add restrictions to how someone chooses to use / reuse or distribute GPL software once they are compliant.

        So for me the only MORAL issue here is if the Foundation is using it’s power(s) to FORCE others to comply with its standard as opposed to those of the GPL?

    • Tim Hyde says:

      The surprising thing about the success of ThemeForrest is just how little authors get from the sale, particularly if you opt for non-exclusive.

      Just how did they get so big? What were authors thinking? If they didn’t want to give their work away for free, why give it Envato?

      There have been other attempts at marketplaces, who have tried to do right, but they seem invisible in comparison.

  11. Pingback: WordPress Community in a Firestorm over GPL - Coup d'Oeil

  12. AJ says:

    So here is my question…. hypothetically speaking, let’s take the scenario of someone who has a website (their own business, their own website) that designs and sells split licensed WordPress themes, but they also offer 100% GPL themes (as in everything in the themes), in addition, they have free 100% GPL themes on the .org site as well, but none of the split licensed themes exist on any WordPress domains. From reading many blog posts around the net about this subject, am I to assume that this business owner would be removed including his/her themes from the .org?

  13. Pingback: The WordPress Weekend Roundup - WP Daily

  14. Tired of this debate. Envato is for-profit company that is following their own set of ‘mores’ and as such, legally licensing code in the manner they require.

    WordPress has a different set of values, and is also requiring a certain set of legal standards in exchange for participation.

    You can vilify TF all you want, but no one is forced to sell there, just as no one is forced to participate in Wordcamps.

    In this case, I happen to side with capitalism, but because of Matt’s stance here, I don’t think you’ll ever see a resolution. Authors simply have to pick a side and deal with the consequences. If you don’t like TF’s rules, then don’t sell there. If you don’t like what Matt is doing here, then stop giving a crap about validation from the foundation.

    Lots of really good people are getting caught in the crossfire, which is a shame, because all they have to do is walk out of it.

  15. I understand that the WP foundation wants to have a higher standard for those who run or speak at WordCamps, it seems silly to me that they would exclude some VERY talented WP developers from it, but I understand it.

    I’ve always thought that Envato’s revenue split was unfair, but it was the developers choice weather or not they want to partake.

    Now it comes down to that doesn’t. Everyone mentions the developer’s are forced, but they’re not really forced are they? They can choose to use Envato or not to. To imply that they’re forced is just silly.

  16. Pingback: WordPress - Making Money From "Free" is... Wrong? - There is a Theme For That

  17. Pingback: Event Espresso & the GPL - WordPress Event Registration Plugin Event Espresso – WordPress Event Registration and Ticketing Manager Plugin

Comments are closed.