There was some confusion on WP Daily the other day about Obox, ThemeForest, GPL, and WordPress.com. It was disappointing to read since we’ve always been very open about our standards for WordPress theme licensing; 100% GPL for every thing, every time. It’s pretty easy to understand and it’s the only way to really have an open source theme that protects user freedoms. As I posted about recently, what’s been difficult to understand has been Envato’s license. Unfortunately, and just as disappointing, Obox has been caught up in this. Obox sells their themes on ThemeForest and have been trying to sell their themes in the only really correct way — with a GPL compatible license for everything. Since it looks like this won’t be corrected right away, as of yesterday we’ve removed Obox themes from our WordPress.com Premium Theme Marketplace.
Obox is a terrific company and I hope this is temporary. We’ve had a great relationship that should continue. That relationship — and the one we have with all of our Premium Theme partners — is a good example of our team goals. If you’ve never read our Theme Team goals I’d like to point out a couple of them.
We will teach WordPress developers to become the best theme developers in the world. If you’re a WordPress theme developer—commercial or 100% free—we want to help you be the best.
We will ensure all our improvements make it back to the open source community.
We’re very serious about these goals and very proud of how these work out with our Premium Theme partners. The reviews we’ve done of the themes in our marketplace have been referred to as “Epic” more than once and I understand that they’ve become somewhat legendary. We love hearing that. A considerable investment of time is put into every theme review and every premium theme launch on WordPress.com. Our hope is not just that our partners benefit from this investment but that the whole WordPress community benefits.
So, as I’ve said this is disappointing. One day — hopefully soon if Envato can correct their licensing problem right away — we’ll have Obox back. That won’t be just a benefit for us, Obox, or Envato. It’ll be a boon to the whole WordPress community.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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? Continue reading “The Ethics of WordPress Themes at a Premium”