WordPress and the GPL, round two

This seems to happen every couple years. Something will come up, and suddenly the WordPress blogosphere is suddenly all a-Twitter (pun intended) about GPL-related issues. This time around, though, it isn’t an outright disregard for or ambivalence toward WordPress and the GPL, there are actual, seemingly good intentions involved, and unwilling participants caught in the crossfire, which makes this go-round much more unfortunate and sad.

@jakecaputo is a WordPress theme developer. He also happens to be a seller on ThemeForest. Until Friday, he was a speaker and planner for  WordCamps. Now he isn’t.

Say what you want about ThemeForest (I certainly have).  For the record, I’m not an advocate for ThemeForest, nor do I have any themes on ThemeForest (or plugins on CodeCanyon). If anything, this discussion has made me want to steer even further away from those places (at least until this gets resolved, one way or another — well, one way, at least).

The reason Jake got booted is because he’s on ThemeForest, selling themes. The WordPress Foundation — the non-profit entity that helps support WordCamps and otherwise provides advocacy and guidance for all things GPL in the WordPress world — has made it clear, for a long time, that WordCamp volunteers must not only follow the letter of the GPL license in how they advocate and promote their own works (outside of WordCamp), but also embrace and follow the spirit of the GPL as well. In plain(er) English this means for developers that your code must not be simply GPL-compliant (e.g. split GPL and proprietary license) but 100% GPL or compatible. All resources in your (distributed) code, all GPL, all the time.

The problem comes in when you sign up to be a seller on ThemeForest. ThemeForest (and CodeCanyon) enforce a split GPL/proprietary license and do not let authors choose the license under which their code is released. This comes in direct conflict with the “one step above simple compliance” that the WordCamp guidelines advise. Which means, essentially, that any author on ThemeForest or CodeCanyon can not present at a WordCamp because ThemeForest and CodeCanyon do not allow them to distribute their work under a license that is 100% GPL. End of discussion.

I will happily say that this sucks for individual theme authors who put their work out there and try to give back to the community by being involved in WordCamps and are now being excluded because of their involvement in Envato properties (the parent company of ThemeForest and CodeCanyon) and decisions that were made for them. But this is how I see it:

WordCamps are largely assisted by the WordPress Foundation — a non-profit that Matt Mullenweg set up a few years ago to “further the mission of the WordPress project.” WordCamps can use funds from WordPress Foundation stores and, if they make any profit, it goes back into the WordPress Foundation. The WordPress Foundation takes over — as an official, legal entity — where the views and ideology of WordPress.org left off, particularly when it comes to these issues of open source and the GPL and what flies and what doesn’t. Because it’s an organization, it has more influence than just saying “.org says you can’t do that”. But I see this going a step further than that, too. In the (hopefully unlikely) event that the GPL ever has to be defended in court as a legally-binding license (like the mutterings several years ago when Chris Pearson was refusing to put the GPL on his popular WordPress theme, Thesis), it would be the WordPress Foundation who would be defending the GPL, much like the Electronic Freedom Foundation assists in cases where digital freedoms are being violated. And that is why I don’t see the WordPress Foundation ever budging when it comes to GPL debates, nor should they. If you make just one exception, it undermines the entire license and could potentially threaten all open source software released under the GPL should it ever go to court (and even have wider-ranging backlash than that, should GPL-derivative licenses or any open source license come into the argument — if you prove the GPL is invalid, where does that leave other OS licenses?).

The WordPress Foundation is like a lighthouse for the GPL, particularly when it comes to WordPress, and WordCamps are a product of the WordPress Foundation. That’s why it’s not good enough that you simply comply with or agree with or use the GPL when it suits you. As a speaker, organizer, or volunteer for a WordCamp, you are a representative of the WordPress community as a whole, and therefore you — yes, you — need to go above and beyond what’s required. If I went to a WordCamp, knowing nothing about WordPress, and met a speaker there who sold on Envato (CodeCanyon or ThemeForest), and went to look up their stuff after the Camp, I could easily get the wrong idea about what WordPress is and where it stands when it comes to open source, the GPL and selling commercial themes and plugins.

so, wp.org is a religion now?


No. But the GPL is an ideology and the WordPress Foundation is based on that ideology.

There are a number of things that can be done to solve this problem, including — but not limited to — a compromise on Envato’s side.

1. Non-WordCamp WordPress events.

This has already been done with a number of WordUps around the world and with the recent — and by all accounts incredibly successful — PressNomics. Have a problem with the way the WordPress Foundation runs things? Fine. Start your own event that’s not a Camp. WordCamps traditionally don’t make any money and generally pretty much break even, with all the sponsor money and ticket sales going to pay for things like lunch, t-shirts and the venue. There are no shortage of willing sponsors for a WordPress-centric event, organizing a notCamp wouldn’t be any more difficult than organizing a Camp (admittedly, that’s still a pretty hefty job).

2. ThemeForest authors pull their themes off of ThemeForest.

This is a bitter pill to swallow. Many ThemeForest authors are making significant amounts of money selling on ThemeForest and going it alone would put that at risk. However, as long as you don’t have a say over the license under which you release your themes, if you want to be a part of the WordCamp system — and generally play nice with WordPress — it might come down to this. Brian Gardner (from StudioPress) pulled his themes off of ThemeForest when he realized that putting a GPL license on his profile page wasn’t good enough (editas pointed out in the comments, this was an internal decision that had been made already that just hadn’t been done yet and not specifically a direct result of these shenanigans), and Adii (from WooThemes) — who’s never been on ThemeForest (that I know of edit: I stand corrected) — put in his 2 cents about the GPL and abandoning their split license and adopting the GPL (and subsequently how that’s helped their business by way of WooCommerce). Not everyone is Brian, Adii or Matt, of course, and it’s one thing to already have a successful theme business like StudioPress and pull your themes off ThemeForest — it could be devastating if you were an independent author and suddenly didn’t have those checks coming in. That said, when I launched Museum Themes and looked at the options out there for licensing, I went the harder route — making everything 100% GPL and not using marketplace sites like ThemeForest — because being all in with WordPress, when WordPress is your business is the right thing to do.

3. ThemeForest changes their licensing structure to allow authors to put their themes up under a 100% GPL license.

This may involve some meeting at the middle from ThemeForest. ThemeForest will need to compromise their position in allowing authors to choose. Matt’s comment here indicates that if ThemeForest were to allow authors to release their themes to be 100% GPL, that they would be able to, once again, speak at WordCamps. As he points out, “all of the most successful theme companies out there are 100% GPL and their business is booming, so there’s no monetary downside to Envato.”

The ball, it seems, is in Envato’s court here. Matt has provided some clarification of the guidelines, stating that if ThemeForest/Envato allowed users to release their themes as 100% GPL, those authors (choosing a 100% GPL license) would not be in violation and be able to speak & be involved at WordCamps, but Envato (by still selling non-100% GPL/split-license works) would not. The last time this issue reared it’s ugly head, it was on the theme shops to comply — and they did — and I think the WordPress ecosystem and even their businesses have thrived because of it. I hope the same thing happens here.





20 responses to “WordPress and the GPL, round two”

  1. John Saddington (@saddington) Avatar

    A good review of what’s been going on here. where do you stand as the dust settles?

    1. chris reynolds Avatar

      I’m really hoping that ThemeForest allows authors to release themes under a license of their choice. Barring that, I’m with Matt, sell them yourself and keep all of the revenue.

      1. John Saddington (@saddington) Avatar

        it seems that this is one of the better ways to go, for sure. stay free of all the whacky-ness. take the risk. get the gain!

  2. Syed Balkhi Avatar

    Now I have blurry vision after reading your post. The 3d text is crazy.

    1. chris reynolds Avatar

      Ha! Alas, yes, text shadow doesn’t look too good on black, does it? You aren’t the first to mention it. I fixed it. :)

  3. Rohit Jaiswal Avatar

    I would always favor matt and his team in support of GPL

  4. JohnG Avatar

    Brian didn’t take SP themes off ThemeForest bc of this kerfuffle. He stated it was an internal decision a while ago, but this event reminded him to do it. Pure coincidence.

    1. chris reynolds Avatar

      You’re right. Edited the post to clarify.

  5. Amit Avatar

    >> all of the most successful theme companies out there are 100% GPL and their business
    >> is booming, so there’s no monetary downside to Envato

    Unless I’m missing something somewhere, I think Envato wouldn’t see it that way since they sell an extended license at abt 45-50x the regular license cost. So if a theme were to be 100% GPL, the buyer would be totally free to use it on multiple sites as he/she desires, something which Themeforest’s current license restricts. So they are likely to see this as a hit on their pocket especially if there are those who buy extended or multiple licenses for a theme.

    1. chris reynolds Avatar

      It’s about perspective, though, and an approach to distributing commercial GPL themes. Any GPL theme can be taken and resold/redistributed by someone else, which is why you aren’t buying a theme, you’re buying support for the theme — since that’s the thing the GPL does not implicitly provide. It seems to me like ThemeForest is set up to sell themes as opposed to selling access or support for those themes. The Extended License, too, isn’t — as far as I’m aware — something that an author can opt-out of.

      1. Amit Avatar

        Yeah, Themeforest for all intents and purposes is about selling products, just like any other Envato marketplace. So from their perspective they stand to lose on this. But then again, an author should have the freedom to choose whatever license they want to sell their stuff under, its their property after all. So not allowing them the option is dumb I think. I doubt all theme authors on Themeforest would go the 100% GPL way, some or most might stick with the way things are, not everybody cares about speaking at WordCamps etc. but doing that I think would be great for those who want to go 100% GPL and would also earn brownie points for Envato in the community as a both customer & seller friendly place rather than being one who dictates using its own stick! :)

      2. chris reynolds Avatar

        Right. I think the likelihood of ThemeForest going 100% GPL across the board is as likely as Chris Pearson making Thesis 100% GPL, which is to say, not at all. But taking the choice away from developers isn’t winning any points.

      3. Christopher Anderton Avatar

        I have been working with clients with some TF themes. Found bugs, and did some optimization. If it where a GPL theme, i would contribute back. Now, i didn’t see why i should do that when it’s just a benfit to the seller and not the community as whole.

  6. that girl again Avatar

    What, precisely, is the difference between a religion and an ideology?

    For me, religion enters the frame when rationality leaves it. And rationality left these interminable debates some years ago.

    1. VegasKev Avatar

      I feel compelled to comment about this…..it’s so effed up….but I’m actually “commentless” at the moment. I’d love to sit back like many others are doing now and think “I don’t sell themes, or speak at wordcamps, so this affects me none”…but in truth, this affects all of us in one way, shape or form.

      Taking people out of wordcamps for actions like this is insane…think about the knowledge that will now “not be shared” because of all this

      ….it’s EFFING stupid.

      ….I guess I did think of something to say after all….”it’s EFFING stupid”

  7. Jacobus Avatar

    I think you’re right that Themeforest will never go GPL, but I guess Envato is making so much money that they don’t really care. And as you mentioned above, you can also just sell your stuff yourself and keep all the profits yourself.

    1. chris reynolds Avatar

      Actually, they announced back in March — after this whole hubbub — that they would offer a 100% GPL option to theme authors.

      1. Jacobus Avatar

        I guess the “pressure” worked!

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