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.)